‘Competent But Cold': New Research on Why Scientists Don’t Connect with People

Image credit: JD Hancock/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Image credit: JD Hancock/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Bob Lalasz is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Most of us trust scientists, right?

Not really, say recent surveys. More than one-half of European Union residents don’t. Political conservatives in America don’t either, and if you read those numbers closely, neither does any other U.S. political group.

And while this survey says while we trust “scientists” in the aggregate more than any other group, it goes on to say that we actually don’t when it comes to just about every specific issue scientists could weigh in on. (Even worse, this poll was held through the websites of Nature and Scientific American — i.e., science magazines.)

So what’s the problem? New findings suggest it might have something do with how scientists code as a profession to the rest of us — “competent” but “cold,” a combination that elicits resentment and envy instead of sympathy and trust.

The research (as yet unpublished) was done by Princeton social psychologists Susan Fiske and Cydney Dupree; Fiske presented it at the recent Science of Science Communications Colloquium held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. Liz Neeley of Compass beat me to blogging about it, and you should read her excellent post. But here are my takeaways from Fiske’s provocative presentation:

+ We obsess about expertise in science, but we neglect the trust factor when we’re communicating that science. Showing people that you’re motivated to be truthful (and hence trustworthy) generates an automatic cue for them that your assertions are valid. (A cue many scientists could use.)

+ People most often trust members of their own group, with whom they share values and an agreed version of reality. For strangers, warmth is the quickest path to trustworthiness. Combining competence and warmth creates an unbeatable combination for connecting with most audiences.

+ Dupree and Fiske surveyed 116 people in the United States with a median age of 37.91, polling them about various professions and distributing their responses across two axes: whether respondents thought the occupation was “cold” or “warm,” and whether they thought it was “competent” or “not competent.” (There’s a substantial body of warmth/competence research on how people feel about various social groups — and even species and corporations.)

The “cold and not competent” group was large (cashiers, janitors, customer service agents, and dishwashers, among others), while nurses, farmers, doctors, and teachers were in the “warm and competent” group.

+ Scientists were rated as “competent” but “cold” — a pairing they shared with CEOs, lawyers, accountants and engineers. Fiske called this the “envy” group — while people respect the accomplishments of this group’s members, they resent the members. They report the “least good feelings” about positive events that happen to the envy group, and “least bad” about their negative events.

+ In fact, when EMG electrodes were placed on subjects’ smile muscles, they smiled more for good events instead of bad events for every combination except for the envy group. As Fiske put it: “When scientists get their comeuppance, people are happy.”


When Dupree and Fiske dug deeper into the numbers, they found that people distrusted scientists because they thought their funding sources might be creating conflicts of interest, especially for climate scientists. “People are intent detectors,” Fiske said, “and our intent is not necessarily trusted.”

So what’s the answer? Fiske pointed to the “teacher” warm/competent rating as a possible model for scientists — not that they should all become professors, but that they should adopt the impartial, educating…dare I say “selflessly giving” stance of teachers.

“The public trusts impartiality, not persuasive agendas,” Fiske said. “While scientists stress persuasion, deliberation would be better — and communicating uncertainty is essential” for building trust.

“We need to take their emotions and values into account,” she concluded. “We’ve got the respect, but not the trust. And trust matters.”

Of course, science attracts many precisely because of its focus on “competence” and ingrained disdain for considerations of self-presentation. Convincing these people to now focus on warmth as well as results might be too big a leap.

But can “warmth” be broken down scientifically, step-by-step? Can it be taught? Can it be simulated? Is it different for different audiences? (It must be.) Gendered? Is it touchy-feeliness? Vulnerability?

Or is warmth simply a projection of a certain humility with regard to the findings, an emphasis on the process of knowledge-gathering and sharing as a service, along with an acknowledgement of your levels of uncertainty? For now, that might be the best bet.

Liz Neeley has a short reference list at the end of her post on literature dealing with warmth versus competence, and how perceptions of the two cut against each other. But we clearly need a lot more research to warm things up.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: The Cooler

Bob Lalasz is the director of science communications at The Nature Conservancy and the editor of the new Cool Green Science. A long-time editor and writer, he was previously the Conservancy's associate director of digital marketing. He now blogs here about the Conservancy's scientific research and on-the-ground work as well as larger conservation science and science communications issues.

Comments: ‘Competent But Cold': New Research on Why Scientists Don’t Connect with People

  •  Comment from Randy Swaty

    Nice-one additional suggestion-budget time to spend with people getting to know them! The Beer and Coffee approach…

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