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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Sep 16;111 Suppl 4:13593-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1317505111. Epub 2014 Sep 15.

Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics.

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Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544
Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.


Expertise is a prerequisite for communicator credibility, entailing the knowledge and ability to be accurate. Trust also is essential to communicator credibility. Audiences view trustworthiness as the motivation to be truthful. Identifying whom to trust follows systematic principles. People decide quickly another's apparent intent: Who is friend or foe, on their side or not, or a cooperator or competitor. Those seemingly on their side are deemed warm (friendly, trustworthy). People then decide whether the other is competent to enact those intents. Perception of scientists, like other social perceptions, involves inferring both their apparent intent (warmth) and capability (competence). To illustrate, we polled adults online about typical American jobs, rated as American society views them, on warmth and competence dimensions, as well as relevant emotions. Ambivalently perceived high-competence but low-warmth, "envied" professions included lawyers, chief executive officers, engineers, accountants, scientists, and researchers. Being seen as competent but cold might not seem problematic until one recalls that communicator credibility requires not just status and expertise but also trustworthiness (warmth). Other research indicates the risk from being enviable. Turning to a case study of scientific communication, another online sample of adults described public attitudes toward climate scientists specifically. Although distrust is low, the apparent motive to gain research money is distrusted. The literature on climate science communicators agrees that the public trusts impartiality, not persuasive agendas. Overall, communicator credibility needs to address both expertise and trustworthiness. Scientists have earned audiences' respect, but not necessarily their trust. Discussing, teaching, and sharing information can earn trust to show scientists' trustworthy intentions.


public images; scientist stereotypes

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