How We Feel About The Others Around Us


Thursday, 5.57am

Sheffield, U.K.

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognized as the person that they are and not a stereotype or an image. – Loretta Lynch

In my last post I looked at groups and some of the types of conflict that we see arising around us. But why is this, and why can’t we all just get along?

Resorting to stereotypes

In 2002 Fiske, Cuddy, Glick and Xu [1] proposed a model of stereotype analysis that suggested that while there are many factors that affect how we see each other, two in particular have a big effect on our reactions. They termed these warmth and competence. Competence is relatively easy to understand but the word “warmth” is harder to appreciate. It tries to capture the idea that we are biologically programmed to assess whether someone wants to harm us or help us and react accordingly.

That seems a poor choice of words, leading to reinforcing stereotypes with the added burden of an emotionally laden term. After all, if you label someone as low in warmth you don’t just mean they wouldn’t help you if you’re in trouble. You also mean they are cold, heartless, unsympathetic and from there, it’s a short step to deciding that they’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.

In searching around for alternative words I’ve settled for “exposure” in the adapted model in the picture above. After all, how do we get to know whether something is harmful or not? If you look at how animals respond you’ll start to see how it works.

For example, the first time you meet someone else’s dog, the chances are that it will be wary. Animals are wary of everything when they first come across it. Then they quickly pick up signs that you are a friend, and as they get to know you they warm to you. Warmth, therefore, emerges from exposure and the realization that you are not harmful and are, in fact, helpful. If you’re a danger or a threat they’ll warn you first and then attack or run depending on what seems appropriate in those circumstances. Or if you are neither, they’ll ignore you and get on with investigating the nearest tree.

First reactions

Once we caveat what we mean by exposure and warmth the emotions we have when we respond to others start to become clearer. We’ll come back to competence later, but for the time being let’s take it as a sign of status. After all, if someone is in a better situation than you that must be because they are competent and if they are in a worse situation that must be because they are less competent. That statement is open to attack, but if we take it as true for the time being then we can look at the extremes and how we react.

If you look at someone who is better off but you don’t know well then you wonder why they are up there, what do they have that you don’t have. You envy them. If you are better off than others and wonder what they did to get themselves in that state, then you have contempt for them. On the other hand, if people are better off than you and you see them all the time, on television, you follow them on social media and like the stuff they put out, you admire them. And if they are worse off but you know them well then you sympathize and pity them.

This is why marketing firms and politicians and influences saturate you with information. The more you are exposed to something the better you feel you know it and the more likely it is that you will engage or interact or support or buy the thing being promoted. The amount of exposure also results in a paradox, even if you vehemently disagree with the products or opinions being peddled you can’t avoid being exposed to them, not if you want to have a chance to disagree or oppose those positions.

Second thoughts

What this means stereotypes form and are reinforced as your exposure to groups increases and you form perceptions of their competence and the level of harm they pose to you and your way of life. Reality is complex and nuanced and how you think is going to change over time, if not over generations. Groups that you perceive in a particular way didn’t get there overnight, there is history and precedent that weights down every thought and contributes to creating the reality that you see.

It also means that we have to take the time to engage with groups that we are underexposed to, and that takes time and effort. And courage. How many of us really have the courage to go into a situation that we haven’t been exposed to before and illuminate it, for ourselves and for the benefit of others. What does it take to do that kind of thing and should more of us be doing that?

We’ll look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

  1. Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878–902.

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