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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2015

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2015 | Volume 19 | Issue 4


Mapping Social Groups (and Stereotypes) With Susan T. Fiske, PhD

Bradley Cannon,
Psi Chi Writer

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

“Where do stereotypes come from?”

That is the question Dr. Susan T. Fiske (Princeton University, NJ) seeks to answer, in part via the Stereotype Content Model (SCM), which she and three colleagues developed in 2002 (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). In Dr. Fiske’s own words: “The SCM describes the judgments that people make instantly upon encountering another group or individual. These two instant judgments that people make when they encounter another individual or group are, first, warmth (i.e., ‘What is that person’s intention toward me and us?’) and, second, competence (i.e., ‘Do they have the capability to enact that intention?’).”

Introducing Dr. Fiske

Dr. Fiske is best known for her contributions to the SCM, as well as ambivalent sexism theory, power-as-control theory, and the continuum model of impression formation. According to Diener, Oishi, and Park (2014), Dr. Fiske is the second “most eminent” living female psychologist in the world with more than 35,000 citations of her work. An author of numerous books and articles, Dr. Fiske also edits the Annual Review of Psychology, PNAS, and Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She has been President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (Division 8 of APA), of the Association for Psychological Science, and of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS).

Dr. Fiske grew up in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, which is a stable integrated community. As she recounts, “When I was a kid, I noticed that people were proud of that. And then, when I moved away, I wondered why other places were not like that too.” Fortunately, Dr. Fiske’s mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all worked for women’s suffrage, so she was already well aware of social imbalances such as those illuminated by gender research. Furthermore, her father was a psychologist, which pointed her toward becoming a psychological scientist. Dr. Fiske received her PhD from Harvard University in 1978.

Organization and Applications of the SCM

To elaborate on the function of the two dimensions of the SCM, Dr. Fiske says, “Whether an individual is coming toward you in a dark alley at night or whether a group of new immigrants is coming to our country, our first judgment (i.e., warmth) determines whether they are an ally or an enemy. It is like a sentry calling out in the night, ‘Halt, who goes there, friend or foe?’ The sentry needs to know the intentions of the ones approaching to know whether to be on guard or to welcome them. Then, the second judgment (i.e., competence) is about whether the ones approaching can act on their intentions in order to determine if they are consequential to the sentry or not. Thus, the SCM model takes these two dimensions, warmth and competence, and maps relationships of groups in society and also first impressions that people make on others.”

As seen in Table 1, the SCM is divided into four quadrants based on perceived warmth and competence dimensions. Groups farther to the right are perceived to have more competence, and groups farther up are perceived to have more warmth. As Dr. Fiske explains, “If you want to map a domain and have a picture of the relationships among groups in the domain, it is intuitively clear and useful to map them this way, as well as being scientifically supported. The four quadrants formed when you make a warmth-by-competence map also turn out to apply to all different kinds of entities that have intentions.”

Indeed, although the design of the SCM was created to learn about the social classification of groups, it has also been used in a variety of ways during the past 13 years. Dr. Fiske describes four of these ways below.

Social groups. “What we used the SCM for the most is relationships of social groups in society. For example, high competence and high warmth is sort of the ideal, and in any society, the middle class or citizens of that country are seen as high on both dimensions. At the opposite extreme are groups seen as low on both dimensions. For example, homeless people and drug addicts are seen as neither warm nor competent. In other words, people don’t trust them and don’t see them as able to do anything important. Then, the mixed combinations are the most interesting sections of our model. For one, they include groups seen as having good intentions but no ability to act upon them. All around the world, older people and people with disabilities fall into that mixed combination. At the opposite extreme, the fourth combination is high on competence but low on warmth, often including rich people or outsiders who are successful in their society and seen as competent but not trustworthy.”

Animals. “Because the SCM is based on good intentions and bad intentions, as well as the ability to act on them, it can also be applied to animals who have intentions. Thus, animals in the high-warmth and high-competence part of the space are cats, dogs, and horses because we tend to trust these animals and think that they are fairly competent. The disgusting low-warmth and low-competence animals are vermin and slithery slimy things. Predators (e.g., lions, tigers, and bears) are seen as highly competent but not trustworthy. Then, the pathetic ones—the ones perceived to be well-intentioned but low on competence—are cows, sheep, and pigs, which many of us tend to eat.”

Companies. “We have also applied the SCM to how people perceive companies because companies are also seen as having intentions. For example, all-American brands such as Hershey’s®, Campbell’s®, and Johnson and Johnson® are seen as high on both dimensions. The companies low on both are sort of troubled brands like oil companies, cigarette companies, and any company having some kind of customertrust crisis. Then, there are companies seen as competent but low on warmth such as luxury goods like Rolex® or Porsche®. The pathetic part of the space turns out to be government-subsidized companies such as Amtrak®, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs®, and the U.S. Post Office® because people tend to see them as well-intentioned but incompetent.”

Occupations. “When we applied the SCM to jobs, the ones that were seen as both warm and competent included nurses, doctors, and teachers, as well as professors to some extent. Jobs that were seen as low on warmth and low on competence include prostitutes, taxi drivers, and janitors. Jobs that were seen as competent but low on warmth included lawyers, CEOs, and scientists. In that study, we didn’t find any well-intentioned but incompetent jobs, but all of the people we were talking about were employed. If we had asked about unemployed people, we might have gotten them in that part of the SCM.”

Changing Warmth and Competence

“One thing I haven’t said yet,” Dr. Fiske continues, “is where these warmth and competence judgments come from, and that is pretty simple. Warmth comes from making a judgment that somebody wants to cooperate with you instead of competing with you or exploiting you. Thus, if you want to come across as more warm, it is important to be clear that you have cooperative intentions. On the other hand, if you want to come across as more competent, the best way to do that is to establish higher status because perceived status predicts perceived competence at about a correlation of .8, which is very high. In other words, all around the world, people think that high-status people are more competent than low-status people. That is not necessarily accurate or fair, but it is what happens.”

Increasing perceptions of warmth. As an example, scientists tend to be located in the low-warmth but high-competence quadrant. In order for them to increase their perceived trustworthiness, Dr. Fiske says, “We have to make our motives clear. To the extent that others think we do our science just to get grants and take tax payer money, then that’s not going to be good. However, to the extent that we are in fact eager to discover truths and make the world a better place, people will trust us more, and as they should, because I think that is the primary motive of most scientists. Also, to the extent that we identify as teachers, I think people trust us more.”

Increasing perceptions of competence. Dr. Fiske pauses to apply this concept to the way that immigrant groups are viewed over time in the United States. “Immigrants are generally not trusted right away and often have a low status, but as an immigrant group moves up across generations and becomes more educated and assimilated into the United States, their status goes up, and they are trusted more over time and generations. Thus, there is a big different in people’s attitudes toward first-generation immigrants and second- or third-generation immigrants. As one example, when Chinese people first started immigrating to the United States to build railroads in the mid-1800s, they were seen as peasants, and they were not respected. However, if you think now about the stereotypes of Asian people, and Chinese people in particular, they are very respected because many people have been here for several generations and have different statuses than they used to.”

Setting the Bar High for Students

In addition to being an expert in her areas of research, Dr. Fiske is also an exceptional mentor for graduate and undergraduate students working with her for credit toward their degrees. In 2009, her students expressed their appreciation for her efforts by winning her Princeton’s Graduate Mentoring Award. For this reason, we were eager to ask her what skills she looks for in students, as well as what steps they can take to enhance their overall research experience.
“First of all, they have to be warm and competent,” Dr. Fiske chuckles. “I’ve been lucky to have very smart and motivated students, but even if somebody is smart and motivated, you need to have a shared passion. And so, in talking to the person and reading their files, I want to know whether we care about the same things and whether, when we have a conversation, there is a spark of interest because that generates the most creativity.”

Another tip that Dr. Fiske has for students who are interested in pursuing a career in her areas of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination research is this: “I think it is one thing to be interested in a topic. It is another to obtain methodological skills and credentials. Nobody will listen to you if you just give your opinion about the way things are, but they will listen to you if you have rigorous peer-reviewed evidence. Thus, I would urge people to make sure they have the methodological skills and the statistical skills to be able to make an evidence-based argument for their own findings.”

Dr. Fiske has accomplished many things to advance the field of psychology and make her family and peers proud. In addition to her research, she became the first social psychologist to provide expert testimony in a U.S. Supreme Court gender discrimination case (Fiske, Bersoff, Borgida, Deaux, & Heilman, 1991). In the future, she is interested in possibly pursuing ethnic hybrids or ethnic mashups, which are people who are combinations of different ethnicities. An incredibly succinct person, her final words of advice are: “Students should follow their passion.”


Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Park, J. (2014). An incomplete list of eminent psychologists of the modern era. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2, 20–31. doi:10.1037/arc0000006

Fiske, S. T., Bersoff, D. N., Borgida, E., Deaux, K., & Heilman, M. E. (1991). Social science research on trial: Use of sex stereotyping research in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. American Psychologist, 46, 1049–1060. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.46.10.1049

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, 878–902. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.878

Table 1

Structure of the Stereotype Content Model (SCM)

Low Competence
High Competence
High Warmth
Pity Pride
Low Warmth

Susan T. Fiske, PhD, is Eugene Higgins Professor, Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University. She investigates cognitive stereotypes and emotional prejudices, culturally, interpersonally, and neuroscientifically, with policy implications. Her books include The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (with Chris Malone, 2013); Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us (2011); Social Cognition (with Shelley Taylor, 2013, 4/e). She edits Annual Review of Psychology, PNAS, and Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is President of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her past work has been funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Notable awards received by Dr. Fiske include the 2010 APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, the APS William James Fellow Award, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Donald T. Campbell Award, and the British Academy Corresponding Fellow Award, just to name a few. Research requires a village, and her graduate students conspired for her winning Princeton University’s Graduate Mentoring Award.

Copyright 2015 (Vol. 19, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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