Stereotype Content Model
The Basic Idea
Our evolutionary ancestors probably made all sorts of judgements about other people, but two kinds of judgement stood out as most important for their survival: judgements of warmth and judgements of competence.
Warmth can be boiled down to: how friendly is this person? Are they a friend or foe? Competence, on the other hand, is whether someone looks weak or strong. You can probably guess why these judgments are important. If someone is a strong foe, you wouldn’t mess with them to avoid getting hurt. If someone was a weak foe … why not steal their things? They can’t fight back! If someone was a strong ally, you’d want to partner with them for protection. If someone was a weak ally, you’d want to protect them to establish relationships.
These are judgements of individuals. The stereotype content model (SCM), is based on the idea that we judge groups in the same way, leading to predictable stereotypes.1 Specifically, the SCM states that our judgements of groups fall into four quadrants based on their perceived warmth (how friendly and willing to cooperate a group appears) and competence (their socioeconomic status and perceived intelligence). These dimensions are independent: how “warm” a group feels has no bearing on how “competent” they are; those high in competence aren’t necessarily low in warmth.
Groups that are high in warmth but low in competence face paternalistic stereotypes, making us pity and help them. Such groups include the elderly, people with disabilities, and ‘housewives’. Groups that are low in warmth and low in competence, such as poor people and welfare recipients, face contemptuous stereotypes—we tend to feel scorn towards them. Groups that are low in warmth but high in competence face envious stereotypes and often include Asian people, Jewish people, and rich people. Lastly, people high in warmth and high in competence tend to be heavily admired, and are typically members of our in-groups, such as those who belong to our race or gender categories.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Traditionally, work on stereotypes adopted a binary in-group out-group model: early psychologists believed that groups were seen either negatively or positively, as most researchers back then weren’t interested in the content of stereotypes so much as how stereotypes formed1. In 2002, Princeton psychology researcher Susan Fiske and then-PhD student, Amy Cuddy, revived interest in stereotype content. They devised a hypothesis that fundamentally shifted the way we think about stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t either positive or negative, they suggested; they can have both positive and negative characteristics based on where they fall in the warmth and competence dimensions.
The division of ‘warmth’ and ‘competence’ comes from Rosenberg, Nelson, and Vivekananthan’s theory of social judgments in 19682. Since their work, studies have repeatedly shown that judgements of others fall under these two categories.
To validate their hypothesis, Fiske and Cuddy recruited various university students and presented them with a list of about 20 social groups, such as Black people, elderly people, people with disabilities, and welfare recipients. They then asked the students to rate these groups on warmth and competence. Specifically, they asked participants to rate a) how competent, confident, competitive, and intelligent groups of people were, and b) how tolerant, warm, friendly, and sincere they were. Of course, the researchers realized participants could present desirability biases given the choice of subgroups, so they asked participants what the American society views about these groups as opposed to their personal beliefs.
Using a statistical technique known as cluster analysis, which determines the statistical likelihood of whether certain variables (in this case, the social groups) belonged to a larger group, she found strong evidence for her hypothesis. Participants tended to rate social groups in four clusters or quadrants based on their competence and warmth scores: low warmth/high competence, high warmth/low competence, low warmth/low competence, and high warmth/high competence. This finding was important because it explains why we have mixed feelings for certain groups. In particular, when we feel pity for a group, we’re both sympathetic and condescending towards them. Similarly, when we feel envy toward a group, we simultaneously admire them for their accomplishments and resent them.
Susan Fiske is a social psychologist known for her work on social cognition, stereotypes, and prejudice. Currently, she holds the title Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Department of Psychology at Princeton University. She coined the well-known term “cognitive misers”—the idea that, regardless of our intellect, we try to conserve as much mental energy as possible and thus do things in a way that requires least cognitive effort. A quantitative analysis published in 2014 identified Fiske as the 22nd most eminent researcher in the modern era of psychology (12th among living researchers, 2nd among women)3.
Amy Cuddy an American Social Psychologist and a former student of Susan Fiske at Princeton. Dr. Cuddy devised a model of stereotyping by building upon the SCM for her dissertation thesis, entitled: “The BIAS Map: Behavior from intergroup affect and stereotypes”. She’s commonly known for her promotion of “Power Posing” — the idea that adopting a powerful stance can make you feel powerful. She presented a TEDtalk on the idea that garnered over 60,000,000 views. Cuddy currently serves as a professor at the Harvard School of Business.
Although the SCM proposes to be a universal model, most of the early evidence for it relied on U.S. participants, making some question whether it applies to non-Western cultures. There are notable differences between North American culture and other cultures that undermines universal principles of stereotyping. Some studies have shown that, compared with East Asians, North Americans tend to use more categories while thinking and thus might be more susceptible to stereotyping.4 Additionally, since political correctness is more of a norm in certain countries, such as the U.S., some might be more likely to bestow a partially positive stereotype upon out-groups. Mixed stereotypes may not be as prevalent in other cultures where such norms aren’t present. Finally, some societies might not value SCM’s traits – competence and warmth – enough to use them in forming stereotypes.
To circumvent this criticism, Fiske and Cuddy devised a research study testing whether the SCM’s principles hold across ten non-U.S. nations, three of which were collectivistic cultures4. Strikingly, they found that participants from all the nations relied centrally on warmth and competence dimensions for their judgements of other groups, and their judgements could be reliably clustered using the four quadrants outlined by the SCM. This research supports the idea that there’s something fundamental to warmth and competence judgements, and as a consequence, the nature of stereotypes across cultures.
In addition to the culture issue, work by psychologist Collin Leech and his colleagues argue that the “warmth” dimension of the SCM conflates sociability, which describes attributes such as cooperation and kindness, and morality, describing an internal ethical sense. In other words, it’s one thing to look friendly and kind, but it’s another thing to look like you’re a good person with honest values, and they argue that most people can distinguish between the two.5 For example, we can think that our professor looks intimidating, but at the same time know they’re good people at heart. Considering this argument, Leech and his colleagues proposed a three dimensional alternative to the SCM, retaining competence but dividing warmth into morality and sociability.5
Knowing the specific emotional response, a stereotype provokes allows us to predict how others might behave towards the group holding the stereotype.
In 2007 Cuddy and Fiske developed a model, based on the SCM’s quadrants, known as the Behavior from Intergroup Affect and Stereotypes (BIAS) model.6 The BIAS model predicts we feel admiration for groups that fall into the high warmth/high competence quadrant, and as a behavioral consequence we actively try to help them (e.g. directly sharing monetary resources). We feel pity for groups that fall into the high warmth/low competence quadrant and might passively help them by donating to causes supporting their well-being (e.g. charity for homeless people). On the flip side, for groups that fall into the low warmth/low competence quadrant (e.g. welfare recipients, immigrants), we’ll likely feel angry they’re taking up undeserved space or resources, and try to actively hurt them. We feel envious towards groups that fall into the low warmth/high competence quadrant (e.g. Asians), and in response, we’ll passively hurt them by ignoring or excluding them.
In support of some of the BIAS model’s predictions, numerous studies have demonstrated that white people tend to feel more anger than other emotions towards immigrants, leading to support of anti-immigration policies. Studies have also shown that stories of Asian people and Jewish people are commonly ignored and overlooked by the media.7,8
The Stereotype Content Model and Consumerism
While you might think that the SCM only applies to social groups, some researchers demonstrated the relevance of this model extends to inanimate objects — and thus, consumer behavior.9
Investigators have demonstrated that specific product brands can be categorized using a warmth and competence scale. Popular brands, like those manufacturing a favorite candy bar or soda, are typically viewed as warm and competent toward consumers—a perception that fosters admiration and loyalty, translating into more purchases. In contrast, brands that have received negative press—like an oil company involved in a spill—are viewed as cold and incompetent, which evokes contempt and dissuades potential buyers. Interestingly, ambivalent product categories also exist, and include envied luxury items (cold but competent), and pitied government-subsidized brands, like the post office (warm but incompetent).
Intersectionality and the Stereotype Content Model
Most people don’t identify with a single identity, especially considering how many identity categories exist: race, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, and so forth. As a result, we also hold more specific stereotypes that emerge from the intersection of multiple group identities.10 Research findings suggest we hold specific stereotypes for older Black men, Black gay men, and Asian gay men. Surprisingly, the SCM can help predict the stereotype content of these hyper specific stereotypes. For example, given that Asians are seen as competent but cold, and that gay men are seen as warm but incompetent, the SCM would predict that gay Asian men are seen as warmer but less competent. Indeed, a recent studies have suggested that perceptions of gay Asian men fall somewhere in the middle of the four SCM quadrants.
Related TDL Articles
Why are humans so susceptible to stereotypes? How do the consequences of stereotyping pervade our social and work environments? In addition to answering these questions, this TDL article more thoroughly explores how stereotyping research as a whole came to fruition, and what we can do to prevent overgeneralizations based on group identities.
One of the authors of the SCM is Amy Cuddy — and while stereotype content remains a primary research focus for her, another branch of her research that’s heavily popular involves“power posing”, the idea that acting a certain way can make you feel a certain way — basically formalizing the saying, “fake it till you make it”. For example, if you pretend to be a scientist by wearing a white coat, will you genuinely feel smarter? Read this fascinating article by TDL Executive Editor Andrew Lewis to find out.
- Fiske, S., Cuddy, A., 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(6), 878-902. doi: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248
- Rosenberg, S., Nelson, C., & Vivekananthan, P. (1968). A multidimensional approach to the structure of personality impressions. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 9(4), 283-294. doi: 10.1037/h0026086
- Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Park, J. (2014). An incomplete list of eminent psychologists of the modern era. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 2(1), 20-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/arc0000006
- Cuddy, A., Fiske, S., Kwan, V., Glick, P., Demoulin, S., & Leyens, J. et al. (2009). Stereotype content model across cultures: Towards universal similarities and some differences. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 48(1), 1-33. doi: 10.1348/014466608×314935
- Leach, C. W., Ellemers, N., & Barreto, M. (2007). Group virtue: The importance of morality (vs. competence and sociability) in the positive evaluation of in-groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(2), 234–249. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
- Cuddy, A., Fiske, S., & Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 92(4), 631-648. doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.521
- da Silva Rebelo, M. J., Fernández, M., & Achotegui, J. (2018). Mistrust, anger, and hostility in refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants: A systematic review. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 59(3), 239–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000131
- Schug, J., Alt, N. P., Lu, P. S., Gosin, M., & Fay, J. L. (2017). Gendered race in mass media: Invisibility of Asian men and Black women in popular magazines. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(3), 222–236. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000096
- Kervyn, N., Fiske, S., & Malone, C. (2012). Brands as intentional agents framework: How perceived intentions and ability can map brand perception. Journal Of Consumer Psychology, 22(2), 166-176. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.09.006
- Remedios, J. D., & Snyder, S. H. (2018). Intersectional oppression: Multiple stigmatized identities and perceptions of invisibility, discrimination, and stereotyping. Journal of Social Issues, 74(2), 265–281. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12268
- Klysing, A., Lindqvist, A., & Björklund, F. (2021). Stereotype Content at the Intersection of Gender and Sexual Orientation. Frontiers In Psychology, 12. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.713839