Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Communicating Warmly Can Help Scientists Reach the Public

April 28, 2021
General Communication Studies, Interpersonal Communication

There are a variety of negative stereotypes associated with scientists, such as a willingness to prioritize scientific discovery over safety and an unwillingness to communicate with the public. Scientists are perceived as “nerdy, robot-like, and emotionless.” Unfortunately, these stereotypes may increase public distrust in the scientific community. One way that scholars have sought to address this is through the warmth-competence framework. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Nagwan R. Zahry and John C. Besley examine how scientists’ interpersonal warmth can be communicated in written communication. 

People use warmth and competence to assess others. Warmth is conceptualized as “traits typically associated with the key dimensions of trust, including morality and friendliness,” while competence “reflects traits akin to knowledge and efficacy.” Studies have shown that people can assess another person’s warmth more quickly than they can gauge competence and thus may weigh warmth (or a lack thereof) more heavily when assessing others’ motives. People who are perceived as warm are also more likely to be perceived as trustworthy. 

The Study 

In two online experiments, Zahry and Besley examined warmth in messages as prosocial behavior, meaning that scientists communicate that they are doing scientific work for the benefit of the community (rather than for themselves) and include emotional appeals in their messages. They also examined how the messages’ warmth influenced the scientists’ perceived competence. 

The First Experiment 

In the first experiment, messages were presented as statements by undergraduate students in horticulture and food science who discussed their graduation plans. Zahry and Besley created three messages: a neutral message about the students’ competence, a prosocial message about serving society, and a message that included both prosocial and emotional appeals about good intentions and serving society (an emotional-prosocial message). The participants read the messages and then answered online survey questions about the students’ personality traits. There were 437 participants who ranged in age from 18 to 35.  

The results from the first experiment showed that the emotional-prosocial message was perceived as the warmest. However, the participants did not perceive a significant difference in warmth between the prosocial message and the neutral message. Students who conveyed the emotional-prosocial message and the prosocial message were perceived as more competent. 

The Second Experiment 

The second experiment replicated the first, with messages from professors instead of students. As with the first experiment, there were three messages. The neutral message addressed the professors’ competence in teaching. The prosocial message emphasized the value of training students to help their communities, and the emotional-prosocial message emphasized a passion for teaching. There were 412 participants who ranged in age from 18 to 35. 

The results showed that the emotional-prosocial message was perceived as the warmest. However, unlike in the first experiment, the prosocial message was perceived as warmer than the neutral message. Furthermore,  professors who conveyed the emotional-prosocial and prosocial messages were perceived as more competent than their peers who conveyed the neutral message. 

Conclusion and Implications

Zahry and Besley conclude that prosocial messages with emotional appeals can communicate warmth as they emphasize scientists’ genuine passion for working in the public interest. 

A key difference between the two experiments was that participants did not perceive a significant difference in warmth between the students’ neutral and prosocial messages in the first experiment. Zahry and Besley suggest that the recent graduates may be perceived as advocating for prosocial behaviors to advance their careers. Thus, their motives may be perceived as selfish. In contrast, professors’ prosocial intentions represent their actual jobs, which may be perceived as more genuine.

These findings may be useful for scientists looking to convey warmth in their public messaging. Zahry and Besley suggest that “scientists [need to] share with the public the impact of their work in solving real-world problems, while emphasizing that their passion for scientific pursuits is driven by ethical motives for the public good rather than sheer self-interest.” The authors also note that this emphasis on warm, prosocial communication should be present in communication trainings for scientists, as well as in university STEM programs. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Nagwan R. Zahry & John C. Besley (2021): Can scientists communicate interpersonal warmth? Testing warmth messages in the context of science communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research, DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2021.1880017 

About the author (s)

Nagwan Zahry

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication

Nagwan Zahry

John C. Besley

Michigan State University

Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations, Department of Advertising and Public Relations

John C. Besley