Scientists, We Do Trust You, Even If You Could Be a Little Warmer

In a study published online before print in PNAS on September 15 this year, Susan Fiske and Cydney Dupree from the psychology and public affairs department at Princeton University explore how credible, warm and competent Americans find scientists. Why? Because in their expanding role as communicators, scientists need to engage people’s emotions and values as well as their ‘brains.’ And to do so, scientists as communicators need the public’s trust. How trustworthy would you rate this scientist? Image: Chesapeake Bay Program, Scientist in dive gear,

“Science communicators try to persuade the public that they are honest brokers of scientific evidence, that is, that they are credible. In an attitudes research literature spanning decades, communicator credibility demonstrably has two components. Expertise is only one crucial prerequisite for communicator credibility (15). Perceived expertise entails the knowledge and ability to be accurate. […]The other feature of communicator credibility is trust…” – PNAS Study

Trust is a funny thing. We can conceptualize it as having two fundamental dimensions: competence and warmth. People who are seen as “on our side” and as cooperators with us are generally seen to be warm – you know, that friendly kind of trustworthiness.

“Considerable evidence suggests that warmth judgments are primary: warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.” – Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence

Social scientists in the past (prominently including Susan Fiske) have established general groupings of American social groups [PDF] based on a two-dimensional graph. On one dimension is warmth, on the other is competence. For example, the elderly and disabled are generally seen as low in competence but very warm. The poor and homeless are seen as both low in competence and low in warmth. Christians, women and the middle class are seen as moderately to highly competent AND very warm. The educated and professionals are seen as moderately warm and highly competent. The rich? As competent but not very warm.

“Perception of scientists, like other social perception, presumably involves inferring intent (warmth) as well as capability (competence). In the context of this Perspectives article, these perceptions may help to understand how the public responds to science communicators.” – PNAS Study

The Findings

So what about researchers and scientists? It turns out, according to Fiske and Dupree’s data, that they generally occupy that 'bubble' that contains the educated and professionals – they are seen as highly competent and moderately warm.  How warm? About a 3 out of 5, where 5 is the most warm. And professors (who are also often researchers/scientists) are seen as similarly competent but even warmer.

I’ve roughly sketched Fiske and Dupree’s competence vs. warmth findings below:


My interpretation for this data is: Scientists, we trust you. We think you are more competent than most professions we can think of. Only doctors and engineers are as competent as you are, in our view. We think you are MORE competent than teachers, child care workers or farmers. Could you stand to work on being “warmer,” like some doctors, nurses and teachers? Sure. But hey, we think you are warmer than police officers, cooks, salespersons, maids, heck, even customer service. And WAY warmer than CEOs.

But Fiske and Dupree conclude differently. Fiske and Dupree draw scientists into the bubble that generally includes rich people – the same social group the average American might perceive as competent, but smile at if they happened to sit on a piece of chewing gum, or perhaps receive a puff of chemical smoke to the face in a lab experiment gone wrong.

“They [including scientists and researchers] earn respect but not trust. Being seen as competent but cold might not seem problematic until one recalls that communicator credibility requires not just status and expertise (competence) but also trustworthiness (warmth).” – PNAS Study

“Scientists, in this view, may seem not so warm. Their intent is not necessarily trusted, maybe even resented.” – PNAS Study

I don’t completely understand why Fiske and Dupree conclude this way. Scientists and researchers definitely border on the high “warmth” end of the ‘bubble’ that includes CEOs and rich people. They are definitely closer to the warm professions of doctor and professor than they are to CEOs and lawyers. Why then do Fiske and Dupree conclude that scientists lack trustworthiness?

“As noted, it’s a matter of which comparison one emphasizes,” Fiske explained in response to my questioning. “We meant to emphasize warmth compared with competence, and also warmth compared with ideals. To us, the glass seems half-empty, but I can imagine how someone else could look at the data and see the glass as half full.”

Fiske and Dupree do acknowledge in their paper that “scientists whose job involves teaching and communicating may seem warmer and more trustworthy.” So why didn’t they ask their participants to rate the profession of science communicator specifically? Or science blogger, even?

“The main takeaway from our study is that credible science communicators, like all communicators, need to show both expertise and trustworthiness,” Fiske said, in an e-mail to me today. In response to my question of why she and her colleague didn’t ask respondents to rate the job of science communicator, Fiske responded: “As our online supplemental methods materials say, we first asked a group of participants to list jobs common on the US.  This is an established method in a dozen years of our research across 3 dozen countries. […] Those jobs did not come up.”

The second phase of Fiske and Dupree’s study gets even more confusing. They find that Americans rate climate scientists quite low in distrust. In other words, climate scientists might be viewed more positively than other scientists in general.

Exaggerated Headlines

In the past week, several webnews sites have written about this paper. Headlines include “Why Don’t Americans Trust Scientists” and “Scientists Are Not Trusted by Americans – Here’s Why.” Even the press release issued by Princeton about the study, vetted by both researchers, ran with the headline “Scientists Seen as Competent But Not Trusted by Americans.” These headlines, in my opinion, don’t accurately represent the findings. Yes, scientists could be trusted more, in that they could be perceived as warmer, but “not trusted”? That is an over-statement that lumps scientists blindly in with CEOs and lawyers. Not to mention, that “not trusted” probably means something very different to lay readers than it does to the researchers of this study. The press release should have been worded more carefully to reflect this.

I asked Susan Fiske in an e-mail today whether she believes the Princeton press release headline accurately reflects the primary findings of her study. She responded: “I approved the press release.  That being said, I can see that people could interpret our data from different perspectives.  Mostly the issue is, trustworthy compared to what standard?  We were comparing trust compared to competence.  Scientists are viewed as higher on competence than trustworthiness.”

I think THAT should have been the headline, then. Scientists are viewed as higher on competence than trustworthiness. Not that scientists AREN'T trusted.

Unfortunately, looking at media reports based on the PNAS paper that I could find through Altmetric, I couldn’t find any that got outside comment or looked more critically at the interpretations of the data.

Writing on Wednesday, Joe Romm seems to be one of the few to look at Fiske’s interpretations more critically.

“If this study proves anything — a big “if” given its design — it’s that scientists are seen as highly competent, and climate scientists in particular have the trust of Americans. Let’s see some headlines like that.” – Joe Romm

How They Did It

The researchers used’s Mechanical Turk to ask 48 participants the following question: “Off the top of your head, what various groups of people do you think today’s society categorizes based on occupation or job?” The participants listed a total of 372 jobs, which Fiske and Dupree pared down to 42, including scientist and researcher.

Then, the researchers asked 116 additional participants to rate a sample of these jobs based on warmth, competence, capability and trustworthiness.

Problematic, in my view, is the fact that in order to analyze envy, contempt and admiration toward different social groupings, Fiske and Dupree lump scientists and researchers into the same “bubble” as CEOs and lawyers, even though researchers and scientists obviously border on the upper warmth end of that bubble, toward doctors.

Scientists are friendly too! Shutterstock:

What Does it All Mean?

I think we need to ask ourselves what Fiske and Dupree’s social clusterings really mean. What does it mean if scientists are seen as more competent than they are warm – even if they are still moderately to highly warm? Is this always a bad thing? Could there be potential downfalls to being seen as more warm but less competent? And how do we know that scientists who are prominent communicators aren’t seen as more warm anyway?

Before we put out media headlines that tell scientists, “Hey, people respect you but don’t always trust you,” we need to really think about what we want scientists to do with this information. And not only that, but we need to make sure what we are advising them to do will actually lead to better science-public relationships.

“[I]f we are concerned about trust in science and perceptions of scientists, we must focus not only on competence but also – and perhaps more importantly – warmth. Rather than artificially exaggerating traits we think convey friendliness, scientists and science communicators should simply resist the tendency to emphasize their credibility at the cost of their personality. In short… perhaps the best advice is the simplest. Be yourself.” – Liz Neeley

“I agree that there is both good and bad news,” Fiske said. “As an exercise in self-examination, I think it is important to examine places where science communicators could improve.  Otherwise, the temptation is to say that we are doing everything right, and the public is just stupid.  I am more optimistic than that.”


Additional Resources

Susan Fiske presented this research before it was published at the Sackler Science of Science Communication Colloquia in 2013.