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What type of people get exploited and harassed?


People who are perceived as cold and competent. From Harvard Magazine:

The most advantaged category, of course, is warm/competent; that perception evokes admiration and two kinds of behavior: active facilitation (helping) and passive facilitation (cooperating). At the other extreme, the cold/incompetent group elicits contempt and two markedly different behaviors: passive harm (neglect, ignoring) and active harm (harassment, violence). In both cases, the emotions and behaviors are unambiguous, predictable, and directly linked to the warmth/competence perception.

In contrast, groups seen as cold/competent evoke envy, and “envy is an ambivalent emotion—it involves both respect and resentment,” Cuddy explains. Envy also drives ambivalent behavior.


However, there’s a far darker side to the cold/competent stereotype. “If you look at the groups that were targets of genocide, at least over the last century, they tend to be these groups” perceived as cold/competent, Cuddy says, citing qualitative evidence. (She has not collected data on the question.) “In times of economic instability, when the status quo is threatened, groups in this cluster are scapegoated—Jews in Germany, educated people in Cambodia, the Tutsi in Rwanda.” In general, she explains, this cluster “tends to contain high-status minority groups: they’re seen as having a good lot in life, but there’s some resentment toward them. ‘We respect you, there’s something you have that we like, but we kind of resent you for having it—and you’re not the majority.’ Asian-Americans, career women, and black professionals also tend to be perceived in the cold/competent quadrant.”

This warmth/competence dichotomy is a fundamental distinction in human behavior:

Social psychologist Cuddy, an assistant professor of business administration, investigates how people perceive and categorize others. Warmth and competence, she finds, are the two critical variables. They account for about 80 percent of our overall evaluations of people (i.e., Do you feel good or bad about this person?), and shape our emotions and behaviors toward them. Her warmth/competence analysis illuminates why we hire Kurt instead of Kyra, how students choose study partners, who gets targeted for sexual harassment, and how the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus” exert their biases in the workplace. It even suggests why we admire, envy, or disparage certain social groups, elect politicians, or target minorities for genocide.


Warmth is not only perceived first, but accounts for more of someone’s overall evaluation than competence. The warm/cold assessment amounts to a reading of the other’s intentions, positive or negative.

Competence is assayed next: how capable is someone of carrying out those intentions? “If it’s an enemy who’s competent,” Cuddy explains, “we probably want to be vigilant.” Surprisingly, in their self-perceptions, individuals value competence over warmth. “We want other people to be warm, but we want to be competent,” she says. “We’d rather have people respect us than like us.” (Cuddy thinks this human tendency represents a mistaken judgment: “Social connections will take you farther than respect.”)

There’s an interesting asymmetry. Many acts can indicate competence: scoring well on a College Board exam (SAT), for example, or knowing how to handle a sailboat, or deftly navigating through a software application. Demonstrating a single positive-competent behavior tends to broaden into a wider aura of competence: someone with a high SAT score, for example, will be viewed as generally competent. In contrast, a single negative-competent behavior—not knowing how to sail, for example—does not generalize into a perception of overall incompetence: it will simply be dismissed as, say, an unlearned skill. “Positive competence is weighted more heavily than negative competence,” Cuddy summarizes.

With warmth, the inverse applies. Someone who does something nice, like helping an elderly pedestrian across an intersection, is not necessarily seen as a generally nice person. But a single instance of negative-warmth behavior—kicking a dog, say—is likely to irredeemably categorize the perpetrator as a cold person.

In other words, people feel that a single positive-competent, or negative-warmth, act reveals character. “You can purposely present yourself as warm—you can control that,” Cuddy explains. “But we feel that competence can’t be faked. So positive competence is seen as more diagnostic. On the other hand, being a jerk—well, we’re not very forgiving of people who act that way.”

And the two are seen as connected:

People tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” In a business context, she says, this means that “The more competent you are, the less nice you must be. And vice versa: Someone who comes across as really nice must not be too smart.” This pattern is the opposite of the halo effect: a plus on one dimension demands a minus on the other. The unconscious logic might be: If she were really competent, she wouldn’t need to be so nice; and conversely, the highly competent person doesn’t have to be nice—and may even have reached the top by stepping on others.

About Eric Barker