The Psyche on Automatic Reply

Amy Cuddy Probes Snap Judgments, Warm Feelings, and how to Become an “Alpha Dog.”

by Craig Lambert, Harvard Magazine, November-December 2010

THOUGH SNAP judgments get no respect, they are not so much a bad habit as a fact of life. Our first impressions register far too quickly for any nuanced weighing of data: “Within less than a second, using facial features, people make what are called ‘spontaneous trait inferences,’” says Amy Cuddy.

Social psychologist Cuddy, an assistant professor of business administration, investigates how people perceive and categorize others. Warmth and competence, she finds, are the two critical variables. They account for about 80 percent of our overall evaluations of people (i.e., Do you feel good or bad about this person?), and shape our emotions and behaviors toward them. Her warmth/competence analysis illuminates why we hire Kurt instead of Kyra, how students choose study partners, who gets targeted for sexual harassment, and how the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus” exert their biases in the workplace. It even suggests why we admire, envy, or disparage certain social groups, elect politicians, or target minorities for genocide.

Cuddy also studies nonverbal behavior like the postures of dominance and power. Intriguingly, her latest research connects such poses to the endocrine system, showing the links between stances, gestures, and hormones. This work may help clarify how men and women rise to the top—or fall by the wayside—in school and at work. And it relates to some surprising findings about how venture capitalists decide where to make their high-risk investments.

QUITE LITERALLY BY ACCIDENT, Cuddy became a psychologist. In high school and in college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she was a serious ballet dancer who worked as a roller-skating waitress at the celebrated L.A. Diner. But one night, she was riding in a car whose driver fell asleep at 4:00 A.M. while doing 90 miles per hour in Wyoming; the accident landed Cuddy in the hospital with severe head trauma and “diffuse axonal injury,” she says. “It’s hard to predict the outcome after that type of injury, and there’s not much they can do for you.”

Cuddy had to take years off from school and “relearn how to learn,” she explains. “I knew I was gifted—I knew my IQ, and didn’t think it could change. But it went down by two standard deviations after the injury. I worked hard to recover those abilities and studied circles around everyone. I listened to Mozart—I was willing to try anything!” Two years later her IQ was back. And she could dance again.

She returned to college as a 22-year-old junior whose experience with brain trauma had galvanized an interest in psychology. A job in a neuropsychology lab proved dull, but she found her passion in social psychology. Cuddy graduated from Boulder in 1998, then began a job as a research assistant to Susan Fiske ’73, Ph.D. ’78 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Fiske became her mentor for the next seven years; in 2000 they both moved to Princeton, where Cuddy earned her doctorate in social psychology in 2005; her dissertation investigated aspects of warmth and competence perception. (Fiske remains on the Princeton faculty, and the two women still collaborate on research.)

Cuddy taught at Rutgers, then was recruited to join the faculty at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. She spent two years in Chicago before moving to Boston in 2008 to join the faculty at Harvard Business School, where she teaches courses in negotiation and power and influence.

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