Genocides Target Competent, Yet Cold People

Wired has a very insightful interview with a social psychologist from Harvard Business School named Amy Cuddy. She says that since World War II, we have been trying to figure out a more scientific answer for why the Jews were targeted for genocide. The most prevalent theory was that of ingroups and outgroups: during hard times, one group of people kills the ones that aren’t in their group. It sounds good, but in practice that theory couldn’t predict who would be discriminated against. So she did a study which involved finding out the groups within a society and then asking the members of that society to rank each group on a number of traits. This revealed that what actually matters are two qualities: competence and trustworthiness.

Competence is how good someone is at turning their intentions into successful action, and trustworthiness is the feeling that their intentions toward you are good. (Warm people are generally perceived to be trustworthy, while cold people are not.) With any two traits, there can be four emotional and behavioral outcomes:

  1. Incompetent and untrustworthy: disgust and avoidance. Think bums.
  2. Incompetent but trustworthy: pity. Like kids and small animals.
  3. Competent and trustworthy: the Holy Grail that everyone wants. Jesus.
  4. Competent but untrustworthy: respect, admiration, resentment and antipathy. What you feel for Scrooge.

If you think someone is competent and doesn’t really care one iota whether you’re happy, lying in a ditch somewhere, or getting tortured, then that may just scare you. What if you fall into their bad graces or get on their radar? They’re obviously able to destroy you, since they’re competent. So when the situation arises, like during war, famine or depression, those are the people that get killed: the aristocracy in the French Revolution, the Jews under the Nazis, the educated under the Khmer Rouge. With the right circumstances, Occupy Wall Street might have ended up there too.


Of course, they don’t have to be killed — just made incompetent. During World War II, the US government incarcerated the highly competent and very untrustworthy Japanese living in America. The Civil War was basically fought because, while almost everyone thought blacks were incompetent, southerners thought them to be untrustworthy and therefore worthy of the chains, while northerners thought of slaves like Uncle Tom, and therefore worthy of pity. In presidential elections, both candidates are usually competent, but the one that’s warmer generally wins, because he’s perceived more trustworthy. The exception that proves the rule is the election in 2000: both candidates were trustworthy, but George W. Bush, who did not appear competent, lost the popular vote. However, in 2004, he won by a good margin after proving his competence in handling the aftermath of 9/11 and starting a war no one wanted — and being more trustworthy than flip-flopping Kerry.

The lesson to take away here is that smart or not, you should try to be nice and popular. If you’re not well-liked, people will be disgusted by you if you’re incompetent, or resent you otherwise. Even pity for being dumb but nice is better than resentment, because at least then the villagers won’t try to burn your house down the first chance they get. Or more likely, you won’t die alone. But, according to science, the best thing is to ask yourself: what would Jesus do?

Update, 11 March 2013: A new book called The Charisma Myth makes a similar point about trustworthiness and competence. In it, the author says that charisma is made up of warmth (trustworthiness) and power (competence), underlined by presence — the ability to be completely in the moment. Warm, powerful and present people are very charismatic.

From Wired, via Lifehacker

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