susan_fiske's picture
Eugene Higgins Professor, Department of Psychology, Princeton University
Rational Actor Models: The Competence Corollary

The idea that people operate mainly in the service of narrow self-interest is already moribund, as social psychology and behavioral economics have shown. We now know that people are not rational actors, instead often operating on automatic, based on bias, or happy with hunches. Still, it's not enough to make us smarter robots, or to accept that we are flawed. The rational actor's corollary—all we need is to show more competence—also needs to be laid to rest. Even regular people who are not classical economists sometimes think that sheer cut-throat competence would be enough—on the job, in the marketplace, in school, and even at home.

Talent and problem-solving ability indeed are crucial, of course. But there's more.

We are social beings, embedded in a human environment even more than in a natural or a constructed one. If other people are our ecological niche, then we need to understand how to live amongst them. We do this by figuring out two things about them, not only how good they will be at getting where they want to go, but also: Where are they trying to go?

People are a miracle of self-propelled agency. Not for nothing are humans attuned to each other’s intentions.  We need—and our ancestors needed—to know whether others have friendly or hostile intentions toward us. In my world, we call this a person’s warmth, and others have called it trustworthiness, morality, communality, or worthy intentions.

People are most effective in social life if we are—and show ourselves to be—both warm and competent. This is not to say that we always get it right, but the intent and the effort must be there. This is also not to say that love is enough, because we do have to prove capable to act on our worthy intentions. The warmth-competence combination supports both short-term cooperation and long-term loyalty. In the end, it's time to recognize that people survive and thrive with both heart and mind.