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Is it best to be competent, warm, or moral?

Monday, December 2, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

moralDespite the research telling us people will like you more if you are warm and hire you more when you are competent–perhaps, it is more important that you are moral. While that may seem odd at first, it actually makes some sense. A seemingly warm and friendly person may be hiding nefarious motives under that gregarious exterior. The seemingly competent and business-like person may engage in morally murky behaviors.

Prior to deciding if someone is warm or competent, most of us like to know if they are good (or moral). Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania asked research participants to identify what they saw as important traits for more than a dozen social roles (e.g., boss/supervisor, family relative, close friend, social acquaintance, your surgeon, co-worker, child’s fiancé, long-term romantic partner, cashier at grocery store, parent, child’s primary school teacher, and a judge presiding over legal proceedings in which you are involved). The participants could choose what characteristics they preferred for social roles described by one of three groups of traits:

Moral but not warm: courageous, fair, principled, responsible and honest.

Warm but not moral: sociable, happy, agreeable, funny and playful. Or,

Both moral and warm: humble, grateful, empathetic, cooperative and kind.

For all roles except three, participants preferred a moral person over a warm one. (They didn’t really care about the morality of a cashier, an acquaintance, or a distant relative.) For all roles except one, the participants also valued someone described in words describing the person as purely moral just as much as they valued someone described as both moral and warm. In other words, being moral was as positively valued as being both moral and warm. There was one exception though and you may be surprised at which role the participants wanted morality but not warmth.

The exception was a judge presiding over legal proceedings in which you are involved! When the judge was described as purely moral, the role had higher approval than when the judge was both moral and warm.

The authors explain it this way:

“Moral character is separate from warmth, it more strongly determines global impressions than does warmth, and it more strongly relates to a variety of fundamental trait properties (e.g., fundamentalness to identity, desirability, controllability) than does warmth. [snip] Character and warmth are separate constructs and character plays a substantially greater role in impression formation.”

It’s an intriguing thing to consider. We want to avoid being hurt and people with low levels of morality are more likely to hurt us. Perhaps those we assess as having higher levels of morality are also more trustworthy and, in the long run, more likable. It’s another question for us to ponder about adding to our witness evaluation form for pretrial research. Last week we wondered about adding dominance to the stand-by traits of competence, trustworthiness and likability. This research would say our sense of how moral someone is may also be an important indicator for character assessment.

Goodwin GP, Piazza J, & Rozin P (2013). Moral Character Predominates in Person Perception and Evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 24274087

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita

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3 Responses to “Is it best to be competent, warm, or moral?”

  1. @BBF_J says:

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  2. @ABAStudent4 says:

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  3. @Brijenk says:

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