You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover – Or Can You?

You and I meet all kinds of people in all kinds of unique situations.  Whether you think it is reasonable or not, or even somewhat Darwinian, people make quick and early assessments about us. It doesn’t matter if the interaction is business or social, when a person meets us for the first time they ask themselves two questions.

The answers to these two questions will impact how they think about you and me and how they behave towards us. Professor Susan Fiske of Princeton University has shown that all social judgments can be boiled down to these two dimensions (Fiske et al., 2007):

1. How warm is this person? The idea of warmth includes things like trustworthiness, friendliness, helpfulness, sociability and so on. Initial warmth judgments are made within a few seconds of meeting you.

2. How competent is this person? Competency judgments take longer to form and include things like intelligence, creativity, perceived ability, and so on.

Susan Fiske’s research has looked at different cultures, times and types of social judgments, and these two concepts come up repeatedly. The primacy of warmth and competence seems to involve reactions to  the questions of friend versus foe, and a person’s capacity for helping or hurting us.

Character Move: Consciously accept that we judge and are being judged very quickly and very early during new interactions.  Being Respectful, one of the tenants of the Character Triangle (CT), will promote friendliness and warmth (being a friend and not a foe). Self-accountability, the second tenant, drives competence (I own my own behavior and contribution).  And third, Abundance adds to the trust (expanding the “pie” and not fight over who gets the biggest piece).

Practice the Character Triangle and you will position yourself for a strong first impression. Watch the behavior of others relative to the CT and you can effectively and quickly determine whether to “pull” or “push.” In this case “taking cover” means proactively designing first impressions… the cover of your “book.”

Taking “(book) cover” in the Triangle,



  1. Lorne says:

    I think thoughtful people learn to dig a little deeper and recognize that understanding someone ” beyond the cover” takes reading the entire book as it were.I also do think it is useful to be aware of the data behind first impressions and that unfortunately a lot of people don’t turn the cover so…why not have a great ” cover” completed by the richness of the rest of the story….how we act and live each day. On the flip side …looking beyond the cover at others is vital…that’s why the the root of ” RESPECT” is to ” look again” .

  2. Paul says:

    I have learned that it’s when we don’t make quick judgements that we can be rewarded with the most fascinating and interesting new friends, “diamonds in the rough”, and “all that glitters is not gold”.
    Most people seem to look for friends that feed their egos, not friends that are in it for just the quality companionship and shared interests.

    I also discovered that people are made up of often unrelated pieces in their character, often unexpected conflicting characters within the same person. I learned to take the good and accept the bad in people with caution to not get burned by it.

  3. Anna says:

    Lorne, I just came home from a mini-journalism party at my teacher’s house, and along the way we dropped off my friend Anna Breed. I didn’t judge her in a bad way; but she looked like someone who has a pretty good life. Good family, nice house, that sort of thing. It was just tonight when I learned the complete opposite.

    As far as actual books go, believe it or not I ALWAYS judge books on their covers. Fun Fact: Did you know the average book gets about ten seconds of attention before the potential reader will pass it or pick it up? It’s kind of the same way in cliche high schools, I would say.


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