Universal Social Cognition

Linda Bartoshuk Susan Fiske delivers her William James Fellow Award Address.

“Psychologists have an insatiable tendency to look for commonalities in the human condition” said Princeton University’s Susan T. Fiske in her 2009 APS William James Fellow Award Address. As Fiske, who is a Past President of APS, noted, many of psychology’s endeavors are devoted to finding the common threads that run through all of us, not only to bolster our sense of a shared humanity, but to advance psychology’s role as a comprehensive science able to make predictions about human behavior.

Consistent with this effort, Fiske has succeeded in discovering some universal truths about social cognition, a field she helped pioneer with Shelley E. Taylor. Social cognition refers to how humans process information from interpersonal cues — those important external hints we get from others that shape our interactions with them.

It seems that a multitude of characteristics would come into play when making decisions about others. Yet, after years of research, it looks like social cognition can be boiled down into judgments of two key elements: warmth and competence.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense: Our ancestors needed to make nearly instantaneous judgments about others’ intentions. They were constantly asking “Are you a friend or a foe?”, which leads to our snap judgments about warmth. However, judging someone’s intentions matters little if they are unable to carry them out. This is where the competence component comes in. Building on previous research, Fiske has found that warmth and competence account for a considerable percentage of how we make decisions about other people.

Many of these results have been borne out by research on stereotypes, an ideal place to start, as it pits friends versus foes (or the more jargony “in-groups” versus “out-groups”). Imagine, if you will, warmth and competence laid out in a 2×2 grid, which creates four distinct categories. People who display high warmth and high competence tend to be us and our allies; we can easily relate to them and they instill a sense of pride within us. On the other end of the spectrum, where both competence and warmth are lacking, we feel disgust. This category is typically reserved for society’s outcasts such as the poor, the drug addicted, and the homeless.

In less extreme cases are the ambivalent combinations of warmth and competence: Some people mean well but don’t have the skills to carry out their intentions. The elderly, disabled, and mentally challenged all tend to fall into these categories and elicit pity from others. Lastly, people who are cold but competent will elicit envy. Who belongs to this group? On many surveys conducted by Fiske, Jews, Asians, rich people, and female professionals consistently fall into this category.

If the logic of this matrix escapes you, consider this example from the 2008 presidential election. John McCain faced a dilemma when projecting his image to the American voters. Not only was he the oldest candidate in recent memory (and pity is not something that typically wins votes), but he was also scrutinized for his wealth. “He couldn’t be seen as an old guy or a rich guy,” Fiske explains. Hillary Clinton faced several uphill battles as well: She was a wealthy professional with an upper-crust pedigree — something that was sure to elicit negative emotions from some voters. Being female only added fuel to the fire as female professionals are viewed even more negatively than males. Barack Obama escaped such scrutiny, however, despite an Ivy League education and previous employment in academia. Why? Fiske has routinely found that perceptions of African-American professionals are positive. In most people’s estimations, African-Americans who have achieved professional success appear both well-intentioned and extremely competent, based on their fulfilling the American Dream in getting to their current position.

It would be reasonable to assume that these dimensions are culture bound and that warmth and competence may not play as big a role in other countries as it does in the United States. Fiske has asked these same questions and found similar results in data from Germany as well as several other European nations. But what about East Asian societies that tend to differ from U.S. culture on some dimensions?

Fiske and her colleagues Amy Cuddy, Peter Glick, and Virginia Kwan set out to test the stereotype-content hypothesis in Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. They reckoned that these collectivist, more homogenous societies with a history of societal hierarchies might have different in-group and out-group perception. It is true that these societies were less likely to endorse feelings of pride toward similar groups: less “we’re number one!” and more “we’re just ok.” However, out-group bias was just as strong as in any other society. Even though these groups tended to display more modesty than Western cultures, they used the warmth and competence judgments to arrive at their conclusions about out-groups.

Much of this work is the result of surveys that Fiske ultimately corroborated in interpersonal experiments on Princeton undergrads. Now, she’s moving on to examining to the neural underpinnings to these dimensions, with the most robust finding being the significant activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) while making dispositional attributions about people, pointing to a possible “social valuation area” in the brain, according to Fiske.

But research on the MPFC is in its nascent stages, and although Fiske believes strongly that differentiated prejudices lead to different neural activations, she emphatically states that prejudice is not an inevitable “hard-wired” response.

When describing the internal causes of stereotypes and prejudice, Fiske says it goes something like this: Social structure, which dictates levels of competition and status, lead to stereotypes of warmth and competence, which then leading to our prejudiced emotions, finally lead to our behavior.

It is never easy for a psychologist to find universal truths in human behavior, but Fiske is pioneering the discovery of rules that influence our interactions with others.