My friend Barbara was at a meeting of her fellow computer geeks. The speaker said to them all, “I’ll try to explain it so my mother could understand it.” It dawned on Barbara that she remembered others making similar remarks in her economics Ph.D. program, and then she said, “It was always clear to me that [the phrase] meant someone untrained, possibly stupid. This was the first time since I became a mom that I’d heard it. I felt kicked in the stomach.”
Barbara had run smack into a deep, common and largely subconscious stereotype – namely that mothers aren’t very smart.
Why would that be?
A recent Harvard Magazine profile of social psychologist Amy Cuddy, The Psyche of the Automatic, highlights decades of research on automatic stereotypes and their impact on many different groups – including mothers and fathers – and explains what’s behind the “explain it so my mother could understand it” type of stereotype.
- Warmth and competence are the two critical factors in how we perceive others.
- It’s really hard to get people to perceive you as both warm AND competent. “People tend to see warmth and competence as inversely related. If there’s a surplus of one trait, they infer a deficit of the other.” (Cuddy quoted in a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb.”)
- Others respond to you in distinctly different ways depending on how they perceive the warmth or competence of a group you belong to according to the grid below.