How We Judge Each Other: Sometimes it’s Bad to be Friendly and Competent

I used to worry that people were always judging me. I only stopped worrying when I realized that it was inevitable. We’re constantly taking in information about our social world, and this can involve judging people. These judgments can be super quick and automatic. Some research has even shown that we can form pretty accurate impressions of people in just a few seconds.

What kinds of judgments do we make, though? You might think that there a trillion ways to judge a person (but only 50 ways to leave your lover). For a while, though, psychologists have been pretty convinced that these judgments boil down to just a few key ones. New research has gone a step further. These studies tested whether our overall positive and negative impressions of people depend on the specific combination of these key judgments.

The 3 Key Judgments

For a long while, the consensus seemed to be that we make two key judgments of people: how warm they are and how competent they are.[1]  Before on this blog, I wrote about how these key judgments even get applied to non-humans. Specifically, they apply to people’s perceptions of non-profit vs. for-profit organizations. More recently, though, psychologists have expanded this. New evidence suggests that the “warmth” judgments we make are really two different judgments–morality and sociability.[2]  Marco Brambilla and Colin Leach provide a nice overview in their 2014 paper in Social Cognition.

Judging people on the dimension of sociabilityMorality: when we judge someone’s morality, we judge them based on how well they treat other people. Specifically, though, this judgment is about whether they treat others in “correct” and “principled” ways. Honesty, trustworthiness, and sincerity, for example, are morality judgments.

Sociability: when we judge someone’s sociability, we judge them based on how much they treat other people in ways to promote affectionate relationships. Examples of this type of judgment would be how friendly, likable, and kind, the person seems.

Competence: when we judge someone’s compentence, we judge them based on how capable we think the person is at accomplishing his or her goals. Whenever you judge someone’s intelligence, skillfulness, and confidence, you’re making a competence judgment.

Morality Matters Most in Judging People

Even though we form impressions of people based on all three of these key judgments, research shows that the morality judgment is the most important. One study simply asked people what the most important pieces of information would be for them to form an impression of a stranger. Given the options, people were much more interested in learning about a person’s moral character than other traits.

It’s not just that people want to know about a person’s moral character. When we do learn about a person’s honesty and trustworthiness, it factors into our opinions of them more than other information. Several studies have shown this to be the case.

What About Sociability and Competence?

Judging people on their moralitySo a big part of how we judge other people is on their moral character, and it turns out that this affects how we view people’s sociability and competence. New research shows that whether we think sociability or competence are positive qualities depends on whether we think the person is moral or not.

Whether a person is sociable or competent tells us about how well they can reach their goals. Whether a person is moral or not tells us what those goals are. So if a person has good (moral) goals, then we like her if she’s sociable and competent because we think she can achieve those goals. But if a person has bad (immoral) goals, then we dislike her if she’s sociable and competent. In this case, those traits tip us off to this person being able to accomplish those immoral goals.

For example, in one study, people saw competence as a desirable quality for their friends, but they saw it as an undesirable quality for their enemies.

In a new set of studies, though, Justin Landy and his colleagues tested this idea even more carefully. In one of their studies, they asked people to form impressions of a whole bunch of made-up characters. Each of these characters was simply defined by two adjectives. One adjective described the person’s moral character (e.g., “honest” or “immoral”). The other adjective described either the person’s sociability (e.g., “friendly” or “introverted”) or competence (e.g., “capable” or “unskillful”). Given this information, people then rated their overall positive or negative impressions.

Overall, people liked moral characters more than immoral characters. That isn’t too surprising, especially given how much we care about a person’s moral character.

More interesting, though, is that people only had positive impressions of the sociable and competent characters if those characters were also moral. People had negative impressions of sociable and competent characters when they were described as immoral. In another study, it turned out that when they were immoral, competent and sociable characters were disliked just as much as incompetent and unsociable characters.[3]  Granted, in the first of these studies (Landy et al.’s second study overall), people still had more negative impressions of immoral and incompetent/unsociable characters than immoral and competent/sociable characters.

And if it seems weird that all of this is based on people’s impressions of made-up characters with two-word descriptions, rest assured–another study found the same patterns when participants learned about another person by reading a more complete account of that person’s behavior.

We’re All So Judgy

Judging people on their competenceThe point of this all isn’t just a sciencey way of saying that people are really judgmental. That may be true[4]  It’s true., but the more important take-away for how we understand psychology is that our impressions of other people might come down to three simple judgments: their morality, sociability, and competence. Among these three, it seems that our judgments of people’s morality dominate our impressions. Above all else, we like trustworthy, ethical people more than their immoral counterparts.

But instead of just being the king of all judgments, a person’s moral character also colors how we think about their sociability and their competence. Normally we’d have positive impressions of a friendly, skillful person. If that person also seems immoral, though, their friendliness and capability make them a threat.

Just think about that guy at work. You know who I’m talking about. He gets along with people and is good at his job, but you just feel like you can’t trust him. That lack of trust could make his shmoozing and his capability all the more concerning. That’s the essence of this research. We form these distinct judgments, but how they come together to form an overall impression of someone is a little more complicated.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Before on this blog, I wrote about how these key judgments even get applied to non-humans. Specifically, they apply to people’s perceptions of non-profit vs. for-profit organizations.
2.  Marco Brambilla and Colin Leach provide a nice overview in their 2014 paper in Social Cognition.
3.  Granted, in the first of these studies (Landy et al.’s second study overall), people still had more negative impressions of immoral and incompetent/unsociable characters than immoral and competent/sociable characters.
4.  It’s true.

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