October 15, 2015

Convey Competence

Engagement Object: Communicating Competence



Good: Communicators should be explicit about why they feel they are in a position to make confident statements about the subject they are speaking about, as well as where it is not possible to make such statements.

Better: Communicators should behave in a way that communicates competence, including ensuring that any public presentation is well assembled and that personal communication style is consistent with the level of competence the communicator wishes to demonstrate.

Best: Communicators should ensure that they practice and seek feedback on presentations, and work with those who have an expertise in writing and design to ensure that his or her speaking style and presentation materials convey competence.

Always: Communicators should be honest and open about where they have expertise and where they do not.

Description of the object:  When a scientist communicates with the public, it may be helpful to clearly establish why he or she is qualified to speak about a scientific issue with a degree of authority.

Social science research on the general concept of trust suggests that competence is a core dimension of trust. The other dimension(s) deal with interpersonal factors such as warmth (Fiske & Dupree, 2014), benevolence, and integrity (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995) (See here). Whereas the impact of perceived warmth occurs almost instantly, it appears that competence may become more important as people gain experience with a communication source (Earle, Siegrist, & Gutscher, 2007). Nevertheless, it also appears that at least some judgments of competence occur relatively quickly and automatically (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002).

Although specific ways to communicate scientific competence have not been extensively studied, some likely approaches might include highlighting university affiliation and rank, past experience in the area, and the amount of time devoted to a subject. Other cues of competence might include the quality of the presentation (e.g., do visual materials look professional?) and the attributes of the speaker (e.g., is the speaker dressed appropriately?).

What this objective affects

: Perceptions of competence are a cue that people use to quickly assess whether they should accept a source of information.

Early research on expert credibility showed that people attend to advice from expert more than non-expert sources, although this effect is contingent on an accompanying perceived lack of bias (e.g., Birnbaum & Stegner, 1979). Additional research showed that expertise cues affect people’s attitudes, both when they are motivated to think about a uncertain topic as well as in situations where they are less motivated (regardless of whether the issue is uncertain) (Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994).

Other research has shown that people may be more willing to help (Cuddy, Glick, & Beninger, 2011) those they see as competent, especially when those people are regarded as being warm. The challenge is that those who are seen as competent but not warm (e.g., lawyers) appear to generate negative emotions such as envy. In contrast, those who are seen as both warm and competent appear to generate positive emotions such as admiration. The challenge is that scientists can sometimes fall into the competent but cold category (Fiske & Dupree, 2014).

Competence also appears to be associated with risk perceptions. For example, one study showed that those who saw experts as more competent with regard to genetically modified (GM) foods saw fewer risks from such foods (Allum, 2007). Other research found that competence was an important predictor of trust in the quality of risk regulation on a range of issues including GM food, mobile phones, radioactive waste, genetic testing, and climate change (Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2003). Both of these studies, however, note that perceptions of competence and warmth are often hard to disentangle (see also: Siegrist, 2010)

Example evidence that competence matters


Besley, Kramer, Yao, and Toumey (2008) found that those who took part in a university based public engagement exercise related to nanotechnology reported saying positive things to their friends and family about the competence/knowledge of the participating faculty members.

Hendriks, Kienhues, and Bromme (2015) showed that respondents can clearly distinguish between high and low expertise sources (as well as low integrity and benevolence sources).

A special battery of questions from the 2010 General Social Survey show that the public consistently indicate they want scientists to have a substantial degree of influence on decisions involving health and environmental risks, including climate change, GM foods, stem cell research, and nuclear power (National Science Board, 2012).



Allum, N. C. (2007). An empirical test of competing theories of hazard-related trust: The case of GM food. Risk Analysis, 27(4), 935-946. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2007.00933.x

Besley, J. C., Kramer, V. L., Yao, Q., & Toumey, C. (2008). Interpersonal discussion following citizen engagement on emerging technology. Science Communication, 30(4), 209-235. doi:10.1177/1075547008324670

Birnbaum, M. H., & Stegner, S. E. (1979). Source credibility in social judgment: Bias, expertise, and the judge’s point of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 48-74. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.37.1.48

Chaiken, S., & Maheswaran, D. (1994). Heuristic processing can bias systematic processing: Effects of source credibility, argument ambiguity, and task importance on attitude judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(3), 460-473. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.66.3.460

Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Beninger, A. (2011). The dynamics of warmth and competence judgments, and their outcomes in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 31(0), 73-98. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2011.10.004

Earle, T. C., Siegrist, M., & Gutscher, H. (2007). Trust, risk perception and the TCC model of cooperation. In M. Siegrist, T. C. Earle, & H. Gutscher (Eds.), Trust in Cooperative Risk Management: Uncertainty and Scepticism in the Public Mind (pp. 1-50). London, UK: Earthscan.

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. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.878

Fiske, S. T., & Dupree, C. (2014). Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13593-13597. doi:10.1073/pnas.1317505111

Hendriks, F., Kienhues, D., & Bromme, R. (2015). Measuring laypeople’s trust in experts in a digital age: The Muenster Epistemic Trustworthiness Inventory (METI). PLoS ONE, 10(10), e0139309. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139309

Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of management review, 20(3), 709-734. doi:10.5465/AMR.1995.9508080335

National Science Board. (2012). Science and technology: Public attitudes and public understanding (Chapter 7). Science and Engineering Indicators. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/ Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/

Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2003). Exploring the dimensionality of trust in risk regulation. Risk Analysis, 23(5), 961-972. doi:10.1111/1539-6924.00373

Siegrist, M. (2010). Trust and confidence: The difficulties in distinguishing the two concepts in research. Risk Analysis, 30(7), 1022-1024. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01454.x

One thought on “Convey Competence

  • I doubt that the importance of science communication rests on a demonstration of competence. The public is generally unable to distinguish levels of competency in science and instead judges social competency or communication skills as a surrogate. If the scientists acts badly, scientific competence is irrelevant. if the scientist acts well, scientific competence is assumed, even it is not present.

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