What is our first reaction when we see someone or something?


We have a rapid and largely unconscious way of judging things and people we see for the first time.

Susan Fiske, a Professor of Psychology at Princeton, came up with the Stereotype Content Model (SCM).

This model says that we look at people and things and assess them along two axes.

Along one axis is how warm or cold we feel towards them.

Along the other axis, do they seem competent or less competent.

As the name of the model suggests, it predicts our stereotypical reaction to people, groups and things.

These reactions have developed over time as we evolved – and help us decide whether there is a threat to us or not.

For example, we perceive many social groups as warm and competent – these are friends, friends of friends, people we meet in offices wearing suits giving us presentations and so on.

They are not seen as a threat, and so we have a fairly positive reaction to them.

On the other hand, what if it’s a social community that we don’t know very well but which controls a section of business or trade.

Or perhaps it’s an aloof and wealthy owner of an organisation employing many people.

In those cases, we may respect the community or person as competent, but feel a coolness towards them, driven apart by differences in culture or status.

On the other side, we may feel warmth towards an elderly person but be less convinced about their competence.

The way we feel, however, may mean we help them cross the road, with their luggage or go to their aid when something is wrong.

A cold reaction may kick in and we hurry past if we see a homeless person holding a bottle – that could be seen as a threat and we don’t stop to get involved.

We get the same kinds of feelings when we look at things – like cars, for example.

A Mercedes going past us on the street may seem cold and aloof but a Camper van seems open and welcoming.

So, what does this mean for us?

The first reactions we have are quite likely to affect the way we act.

For example, feeling less positive about a vulnerable group will lessen our willingness to give.

Seeing exercise as something we are less competent at will drain our motivation quickly.

What we want to do is create more associations with things that are warm and competent – if we see them as positive and fulfilling we are likely to engage more and persist longer.

This attitude alone might make the difference between success and failure.

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