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The Importance of the Central Traits Warm and Cold

15 January, 2016 - 09:19

Although the averaging model is quite good at predicting final impressions, it is not perfect. This is because some traits are simply weighted more heavily than others. For one, negative information is more heavily weighted than is positive information (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). In addition to the heavy weight that we give to negative traits, we give a particular emphasis to the traits “warm” and “cold.” Imagine two men, Brad and Phil, who were described with these two sets of characteristics:

  • Brad is industrious, critical, warm, practical, and determined.
  • Phil is industrious, critical, cold, practical, and determined.

As you can see, the descriptions are identical except for the presence of “warm” and “cold.” In a classic study, Solomon Asch (1946) found that people described with these two sets of traits were perceived very differently—the “warm” person very positively and the “cold” person very negatively.

To test whether or not these differences would influence real behavior, Harold Kelley (1950) had students read about a professor who was described either as “rather cold” or as “very warm.” Then the professor came into the classroom and led a 20-minute discussion group with the students. Although the professor behaved in the same way for both groups, the students nevertheless reacted very differently to him. The students who were expecting the “warm” instructor were more likely to participate in the discussion, in comparison with those who were expecting him to be “cold.” And at the end of the discussion, the students also rated the professor who had been described as “warm” as being significantly more humorous, sociable, popular, and better natured than the “cold” professor. Moreover, the effects of warmth and coolness seem to be wired into our bodily responses. Research has found that even holding a cup of hot versus iced coffee, or making judgments in warm versus cold rooms leads people to judge others more positively (Ijzerman & Semin, 2009; Williams & Bargh, 2008).

In short, the particular dimension warm versus cold makes a big difference in how we perceive people—much bigger than do other traits. As a result, the traits of warm and cold are known as central traits, which are characteristics that have a very strong influence on our impressions of others (Asch, 1946). The powerful influence of central traits is due to two things. One, they lead us to make inferences about other traits that might not have been mentioned. The students who heard that the professor was “warm” might also have assumed that he had other positive traits (maybe “nice” and “funny”), in comparison with those who heard that he was “cold.” Two, the important central traits also color our perceptions of the other traits that surround them. When a person is described as “warm” and “intelligent,” the meaning of “intelligent” seems a lot better than does the term “intelligent” in the context of a person who is also “cold.” Overall, the message is clear: if you want to get someone to like you, try to act in a warm manner toward them. Be friendly, nice, and interested in what they say. This attention you pay to the other will be more powerful than any other characteristics that you might try to display to them. The importance of perceptions of warmth-coldness has been confirmed in many other contexts. For example, in the field of psychotherapy, many studies have indicated that therapists’ warmth, empathy, and genuineness are the three most important traits in establishing a strong and trusting relationship with clients, which in turn leads to positive change (Shapiro, 1969).