Machiavelli’s advice anticipated research in social psychology about how we perceive others. That research found that the two virtually universal dimensions used to assess people are warmth and competence. Here’s the rub: to appear competent, it is helpful to seem a little tough, or even mean. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile studied how participants reacted to excerpts from actual reviews of books. Amabile found that negative reviewers were perceived as more intelligent, competent, and expert than positive reviewers, even when independent experts judged the negative reviews to be of no higher quality. The title of her paper, “Brilliant but Cruel,” says it all. Other research has confirmed her findings: nice people are perceived as warm, but niceness frequently comes across as weakness or even a lack of intelligence.
Condoleezza Rice served as national security adviser under President George W. Bush. Before joining the government, Rice was provost at Stanford under President Gerhard Casper; there she was known for being someone you did not want to cross. As Jacob Heilbrunn wrote, “Rice slashed the budget and challenged proponents of affirmative action . . . earning the enmity of many students and much of the faculty for her blunt style. Rice’s credo, as she told one protégé, was that ‘people may oppose you, but when they realize you can hurt them, they’ll join your side.’ ”
Likability Can Create Power, but Power Almost Certainly Creates Likability
Condoleezza Rice is right: people will join your side if you have power and are willing to use it, not just because they are afraid of your hurting them but also because they want to be close to your power and success. There is lots of evidence that people like to be associated with successful institutions and people— to bask in the reflected glory of the powerful.
Some years ago, social psychologist Robert Cialdini and some colleagues did a wonderful study of this effect. Cialdini taught at Arizona State University, which has a first-class but not dominating football team. In a typical season ASU will win some but not all of its football games. This created a great opportunity for the ASU researchers to ask: If the team won the game the previous Saturday, would more students wear clothes with school insignia the following Monday? Their study found that a higher proportion of people wore visible items of clothing with the school colors, letters, name, or other insignia following a victory than following a defeat. They also found that people were more likely to use the inclusive pronoun “we” to refer to a group following that group’s success rather than failure.