Social Engagement (and Trust) All Boils Down to Two Things… no wait, Three Things… no wait…

There are three primary factors that determine whether you are comfortable interacting with someone — an intuitive approach/avoidance decision called  “social engagement.” 

These three factors are:

  1. their level of competence
  2. how likeable they are
  3. their intention towards you

..or at least how well you’re able to figure those things out, in a given moment.

The rest, as they say, is just commentary.


In a great recent post on his blog, Will Thalheimer takes a review of the research of acclaimed psychologist Susan Fiske, and applies it to the question of how learners make judgments about instruction (and instructors), and how this affects their learning.  This is must-read stuff for any trainer, as well as any designer of online learning.   Thalheimer quotes a review of Fiske’s work, by Jesse Erwin: 

 “…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.”

Competence” is easy enough to understand — it’s a person’s ability to do the things we’d want them to be able to do, in a given situation.  “Warmth” as defined by Fiske includes just about everything else we’d want that person to have… including two major behavioral categories  that I call “Likeability”  and “Intention.”   But before we get there, let’s just go with “Competence” and “Warmth,” and let’s just say it all boils down to a handy 2×2 matrix (doesn’t it always?) :


The above matrix reminds me of the intuitive, Trusted Leader Assessment that I introduced a while back (In a nutshell, ask yourself two questions:  1) Would you want to be stuck out in the ocean, in a life boat with this person? (competence)  and,  2) Would you want to be stuck on a desert island with them? (warmth)  ).  But hey, this 2×2 matrix is cleaner than stories about life boats and islands, and besides, it’s research-based, peer-reviewed psychology… not some blogger’s crazy metaphor. 

The idea behind Fiske’s  “Competence” and “Warmth” formula is that, at the deepest level, our brains use a series of very basic approach-avoidance decision factors…  and a willingness to approach (or “engage”) socially is, in many ways, an intuitive decision of how much you trust a person.

Charles Green and David Maister have a four-part formula they use to measure a thing called Trustworthiness.  The formula looks like this:

TRUSTWORTHINESS = (  Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy ) / (Self-Orientation)

Combining the ideas of “Credibility” and “Reliability” in the above formula  into what Fiske calls “Competence,”  we’re left with Fiske’s “Warmth” which I’ll separate into two factors:  How “Likeable” a person is (similar to what Maister and Green call “Intimacy“) and what a person’s “Intention” is —  in other words, “which team are they playing for?”  This is similar to Green and Maister’s idea about “Self-Orientation.”  It’s kind of clumsy looking, and real life is of course infinitely more complicated that this,  but here’s how all these “equations” might “reconcile” with each other:

 (  Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy ) / (Self-Orientation)

= ( Competence + Warmth)

= ( Competence + Likeability+ Intention)

On a basic level, we like to be near people who are capable (Competent) — that’s their ability to help us.  Whether you’ve got a degree in Evolutionary Psychology or have spent enough time in a  singles scene, you intuitively understand this… it’s the natural tendency for many animals to gravitate towards the “stronger” members of their group (actual definition of “stronger” may vary), and to avoid the “sickly” members (same disclaimer as before).

We also want to be near people who are generally nice and agreeable (Likeable) — that’s their ability to give us the “warm fuzzies” with build rapport-building behaviors such as body language, appropriate humor, positive energy, enthusiasm, etc. The word “likeable” is interesting — we “like” people who are “like” us — our mammalian brains are programmed for this, with mirror neurons which facilitate the social bonding process.   

However, we also want to be near folks who have our best interests in mind, or who at least share our interests — that is their Intention — and it’s a very basic, tribal behavior.  This person make behave in a friendly, Likeable manner and have lots of Competence, but what is their Intention?  All niceties aside, what is their level of loyalty and motivation to share?   They may be able to help us, but what about their willingness to help? 

Conversely, sometimes a person appears to have a great deal of Competence and appear to have very positive Intention vis-a-vis our interests, but they’re just not very Likeable to us.  Often that’s an issue around communication style or cognitive style.  Where there’s conflict, it’s may be simply because one person is “annoying” or  “gets on the other’s nerves.”    

My armchair psychologist /crackpot theory is as follows:  On a more basic level — somewhere below the outer edge of the cerebral cortex — likeability and intent are one and the same — one is a signal for the other — hence Fiske’s unified concept of Warmth.  Once you start adding meta-cognition, the two ideas of Likeability and Intent will separate more, and the behavioral signals lose their fidelity. Bunny rabbits don’t fake their love. We humans, on the other hand, sometimes do.

So we take these three factors and build a cube…


As you go through the position-scenarios of this model, you see that the distinction between Likeability and Intention is non-trivial, especially in business relationships.  Bringing it back to a learning context however, I think the factor of Intention translates to Learner Focus.  As an example of this distinction in action:  There are some very competent, charismatic trainers out there, but they are entirely self-focused. We’ve seen them, we’ve met them. We’ve also met all seven of the other variations of this model.

Yeah, visually its more challenging than the ‘ol 2×2 matrix, but intuitively, is this really too complicated?   Or should we stick with the warm fuzzy competent bunnies?


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 21, 2009, in Business, Communication Skills, Learning. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

Leave a Reply -- for humans only, no spambots

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: