October 15, 2015

Convey Warmth & Respect

Engagement Object: Showing Warmth & Respect


Good: Science communicators should not be afraid to be warm (i.e., friendly, helpful, sincere, caring, compassionate, honest, and moral).

Better: Science communicators should be genuinely warm.

Best: Science communicators should monitor and assess the degree to which others see them as warm.

Always:  Science communicators should avoid being cold, impolite, or aggressive.

Description of the objective: When individuals encounter other people they spontaneously try to evaluate (1) that person’s intentions (i.e., warmth), and (2) whether that person can achieve those intentions (i.e., competence). It appears this process is rooted in evolutionary pressures related to the need for survival in an uncertain world (Wojciszke et al. 1998).

Social cognition research has defined warmth as friendliness, helpfulness, trustworthiness, and morality. The competence dimensions, on the other hand, include traits related to ability, such as intelligence, skills, and efficacy (Abelson et al. 1982; Kinder et al. 1998; Wojciszke et al. 1998) (See here). Another highly cited approach further divides the warmth dimension into “benevolence” and “integrity,” alongside “ability” (rather than competence) (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Schoorman, Mayer, & Davis, 2007). Other terms such as ‘caring’ used in the literature also likely capture the idea of warmth.

In general, people appear to hold several positive attitudes related to scientists’ warmth and negative attitudes are relatively uncommon (Besley, 2015). For example, 85% of Americans agree that “scientists are helping to solve challenging problems” while only 19% agree that “scientists don’t get as much fun out of life as other people” (National Science Board, 2014).  However, when mapped against other groups, it appears that scientists may be seen as competent but relatively cold, similar to accountants (although still substantially more warm than lawyers) (Fiske & Dupree, 2014).    

What this objective affects

: Studies have demonstrated that being perceived as competent is necessary but not sufficient to receiving positive recognition from others. Warmth is also needed.

When people are perceived as being warm, they tend to elicit ‘active facilitation’ (i.e., people want to help them). When they are viewed as lacking warmth, they tend to elicit ‘active harming’ (i.e., people want to attack them) (Cuddy, et al. 2007).

Further, competence and warmth appear to work together. In general, a group with high warmth and high competence (e.g., doctors) will tend to enjoy admiration whereas as a group seen as low on competence and warmth will receive contempt (e.g., prostitutes). High warmth but low competence tends to elicit pity (e.g., janitors). According to this line of research, scientists’ low warmth and high competence would tend to evoke envy or Schadenfreude.

The literature on interactional justice, which is linked to the research on procedural justice and people’s need for having a meaningful (i.e., fair) voice (link to voice page), also highlights the benefits of being seen as interpersonally fair. Interpersonal fairness, in this regard, can be understood as honesty, politeness, and respectfulness (Bies, 2005).

One challenge of the trust literature is that many studies fail to differentiate between warmth and competence and instead simply measure something typically labeled as “trust,” “credibility,” or “confidence.” These variables are usually highly correlated with support for science or various applications of science (Ho, Scheufele, & Corley, 2011; Siegrist, 2000) but it is difficult to know whether this is a function of competence or warmth perceptions. In a practical sense, it is also often difficult to empirically distinguish between different dimensions of trust using a small number of questionnaire items (e.g., Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2003).

Another challenge is that building perceptions is likely a long-term task and thus clear cause-and-effect of communication—including public engagement—on perceptions of warmth in the context of science is relatively limited.

Example evidence that warmth matters


Peters, Covello, and McCallum (1997) showed that “concern and care” was a key predictor of overall trust ratings of various types of social actors (e.g. government) involved in risk management. Concerns about competence and willingness to listen were also important.

Besley (2010) found that interpersonal fairness was an important statistical predictor of willingness to accept a decision about a nuclear power plant. Similar results were found in research on satisfaction with public meetings about local cancer clusters (McComas, Trumbo, & Besley, 2007).

Moffat and Zhang (2014) that both contact quality (e.g. pleasantness), as well fair treatment (e.g. respectfulness), were associated with general expressions and, in turn, greater acceptance of local mining activity.



Besley, J. C. (2010). Public engagement and the impact of fairness perceptions on decision favorability and acceptance. Science Communication, 32(2), 256-280. doi:10.1177/1075547009358624

Besley, J. C. (2015). Predictors of perceptions of scientists: Comparing 2001 and 2012. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Advance online publication.

Bies, R. J. (2005). Are procedural justice and interactional justice conceptually distinct. In J. Greenberg & J. A. Colquitt (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational Justice (pp. 59-85). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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

Ho, S. S., Scheufele, D. A., & Corley, E. A. (2011). Value predispositions, mass media, and attitudes toward nanotechnology: The interplay of public and experts. Science Communication, 33(2), 167-200. doi:10.1177/1075547010380386

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

McComas, K. A., Trumbo, C. W., & Besley, J. C. (2007). Public meetings about suspected cancer clusters: The impact of voice, interactional justice, and risk perception on attendees’ attitudes in six communities. Journal of Health Communication, 12(6), 527-549.

Moffat, K., & Zhang, A. (2014). The paths to social licence to operate: An integrative model explaining community acceptance of mining. Resources Policy, 39, 61-70. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.11.003

National Science Board. (2014). Science and technology: Public attitudes and public understanding (Chapter 7). Science and Engineering Indicators. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/ Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/

Peters, R. G., Covello, V. T., & McCallum, D. B. (1997). The determinants of trust and credibility in environmental risk communication: An empirical study. Risk Analysis, 17(1), 43-54.  Retrieved from <Go to ISI>://A1997WV85700006

Poortinga, W., & Pidgeon, N. F. (2003). Exploring the dimensionality of trust in risk regulation. Risk Analysis, 23(5), 961-972.  Retrieved from <Go to ISI>://000185701400011

Schoorman, F. D., Mayer, R. C., & Davis, J. H. (2007). An integrative model of organizational trust: Past, present, and future. The Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 344-354. doi:10.2307/20159304

Siegrist, M. (2000). The influence of trust and perceptions of risks and benefits on the acceptance of gene technology. Risk Analysis, 20(2), 195-204. doi:10.1111/0272-4332.202020

One thought on “Convey Warmth & Respect

  • This objective is critical. It is my belief that most people do not feel respected by scientists and feel that they lack the authority to ask questions, let alone challenge conclusions. Frustrated by this sense of disempowerment, they evaluate science on superficial grounds, such as the comportment of the messenger or the fit between the ocncepts presented and what they learned in high school or heard on television. Showing warmth and respect to the audience is essential for buildling trust, both in the messenger and in the scientific process, so that attention can focus on the message and not the messenger.

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