When a person meets you for the first time they ask themselves two questions. The answers to these two questions will have all sorts of knock-on effects for how they think about you and how they behave towards you.

Professor Susan Fiske of Princeton University has shown that all social judgements can be boiled down to these two dimensions (Fiske et al., 2007):

  1. How warm is this person? The idea of warmth includes things like trustworthiness, friendliness, helpfulness, sociability and so on. Initial warmth judgements are made within a few seconds of meeting you.
  2. How competent is this person? Competency judgements take longer to form and include things like intelligence, creativity, perceived ability and so on.

Susan Fiske’s research has looked at different cultures, times and types of social judgements, but these two concepts come up again and again in slightly different guises. Not only do we make these judgements about other people, but we frame their behaviour using these two questions; we ask ourselves whether it was friendly, moral, sincere, clever etc..

The primacy of warmth and competence may reflect evolved, instinctual reactions to these two questions about others:

  1. Friend or foe? Is this person going to hurt me or help me?
  2. Capable of hurting or helping? Can this person help me if they’re friendly or hurt me if they’re not?
So how does one project a warm, competent sense of self?

Sometimes in life we get exactly what we expect. Nowhere is this more true than in social relations.

When we meet someone new, if we expect to like them—for whatever reason—then they tend to like us. If we experience apprehension or nascent dislike then things can quickly go wrong. Psychologists have called it the ‘acceptance prophecy’.

The problem is that for insecure or socially nervous individuals it becomes the rejection prophecy. A feeling of apprehension about meeting new people is outwardly expressed as nervous behaviour and this can be a contributing factor in perceived rejection.

A new paper published in Psychological Science provides a simple exercise that helps boost relational security and may help turn the rejection prophecy back into the acceptance prophecy.


Stinson et al. (2011) measured the relational security of 117 participants by asking them how much they agreed with statements like: “My friends regard me as very important in their lives” and “My partner loves and accepts me unconditionally”.

Half of them were then asked to do a very simple self-affirmation task. Participants looked down a list of 11 values including things like spontaneity, creativity, friends and family, personal attractiveness and so on. They put them in order of importance and wrote a couple of paragraphs saying why their top-ranked item was so important.

The results showed that this simple task boosted the relational security of insecure individuals in comparison with a control group. Afterwards their behaviour was seen as less nervous and they reported feeling more secure. When they were followed up at four and eight weeks later, the benefits were still apparent.

It appears that focussing on this simple exercise may be enough to boost the social confidence of many of us who are prone to feeling socially insecure and reinforce other peoples perceptions about our warmth and competency.