Warmth and Competence. How our Learners Perceive…

If social cognition comes down to just two dimensions, Warmth and Competence, might our learners also rely on these two categories in deciding how much to engage in our learning interventions? AND, if so, do we need to ensure that all our learning events exude both warmth and competence?

I got thinking about this while reading a review of Susan Fiske's keynote for the Association for Psychological Sciences. Susan Fiske, who was awarded the 2009 William James Fellow Award, is one of the world's leading social psychologists, often working with Shelley E. Taylor.

As Jesse Erwin's review states, "…after years of research, it looks like social cognition [how we make decisions about other people] can be boiled down into judgments of two key elements: warmth and competence."

As Erwin suggests, we might imagine this in a 2×2 matrix (my drawing):


Boiling it down to two dimensions might have provided evolutionary value in that people often had to make quick decisions about who to trust, who to partner with, etc. Having a simple framework might have allowed quick decision making, enabling survival.

If human beings are programmed to think in this way, might this programming affect learning? Certainly, learners evaluate trainers in the same way they evaluate other humans. When I was a young leadership trainer, I learned how to emphasize my credibility in a stealthy way so as not to appear as if I was bragging. I upped my credibility without lowering my warmth factor.

Good trainers boost their warmth index by appropriately using humor, telling stories, exuding respect for learners, listening, giving others a chance to speak, etc.

Good trainers emphasize their credibility by surreptitiously mentioning their experiences, citing clients they've worked with, having great content, citing research, being organized, etc. Clearly, we ought to design facilitated training with warmth and competence in mind.

But what about non-facilitated learning interventions like CBT's, asynchronous e-learning programs, etc.? 

I think warmth and competence play a central role there as well. One of the biggest e-learning mistakes is to forget to focus on the warmth dimension. Off the cuff, I would estimate that 95% of all e-learning programs are almost completely devoid of humanity. They lack a human connection.

Research lends support here as well. A more personalized writing style (using the second person instead of the third person for example) has been shown to improve learning engagement and results. Using people-based learning guides (a talking head, an avatar, etc.) has been found to improve learning for some learners. The secret here is that the learning guide can't be seen as goofy or too game-like, hey, because that reduces credibility!!

Based on reviewing lots of e-learning programs, here's some quick advice on ensuring more warmth:

  1. Write in a personalize style
  2. Don't present too much material.
  3. Keep material particularly relevant, and emphasize the relevance.
  4. Provide realistic situations for learners to engage with.
  5. Use audio–it really helps in adding emotional depth.
  6. Maintain reasonably high production values.
  7. Show the learner how the program will help them.
  8. Be honest with the learner about what it will really take to put what they're learning into practice.
  9. Consider using a personalizing agent to talk directly to the learner (as long as it maintains credibility).
  10. Pilot test your e-learning and measure your e-learning so you can add warmth if needed.

Here's what the warmth-competence matrix might look like for learning interventions:


This warmth-credibility hypothesis (regarding learning interventions) is certainly worth testing. In the meantime, based on tangential lines of research and based on my review of hundreds of learning programs, I'd bet this simple formulation is worth following. From the point of practicality–and evolutionary survival–sometimes simple is better.

The review of Susan Fiske's keynote can be found in the Association for Psychological Sciences, Volume 22, Number 8, edition of the Observer, Jesse Erwin author.