Cracking the Code of Compelling People

It turns out that when we decide how we feel about people, the qualities that count are “strength” and “warmth.” REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Why do we love Jay-Z and love to hate Kanye?

There are plenty of successful people in the world, but we don't admire all of them. What’s the difference?

It turns out that when we decide how we feel about people, the qualities that count are “strength” and “warmth.” Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with skill and determination. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them.

The easiest way to see how this works is to look at public figures, particularly those at the extremes.

(Graphic: Max Crandall)


High Strength, Low Warmth: Donald Trump. The Donald would like the world to think he is a paragon of strength. His tag line from The Apprentice—"You're fired!"—suggests a cartoonish glee in swinging the axe, and if it's your head on the chopping block, too bad. Though he has filed for corporate bankruptcy more than once, he presents himself as spectacularly wealthy and a ruthless captain of industry. When it comes to looking out for No. 1, the Donald is at the head of the class. Some probably envy his riches, but nobody thinks of Trump and charity in the same sentence. And nobody trusts him.


High Strength, Low Warmth: Kanye West. Fans and critics agree: Kanye is seriously talented. It’s also clear he has an ego to match. His defining moment should have been about his music, but instead was grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards.  While African-American men must, unfortunately, contend with the “angry black man” stereotype in American society, that is not why Kanye lacks warmth—it’s because he acts like a jerk. (This role once belonged to Sean Penn, straight white dude.) Even if his music rocks your world, his personality makes him hard to love. Good luck, Kim.

High Warmth, Low Strength: Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy Fallon is Mr. Nice Guy.  He doesn't have the edge of Jimmy Kimmel. He's not grumpy like David Letterman. He's not burning with curiosity like Jon Stewart. Jimmy is a different kind of funny. He does karaoke with dance moves. He sings with the Muppets. He hosts a slow jam by President Obama. In short, he’s nice to everyone and threatening to no one. How can you not like a guy who's good for an easy laugh before you fall asleep?

High Warmth, Low Strength: Jennifer Aniston. If Jimmy Fallon is Mr. Nice Guy, Jennifer Aniston is his pretty cousin who won "Best Looking" in the high school yearbook of 1987. That smile. That hair. She's so instantly recognizable that a brain surgeon has even identified a "Jennifer Aniston neuron" that lights up in patients' brains when they see her image. Freaky, right? But even though her smile dazzles us with warmth, we don't expect much else from our friend Rachel Jen. Mystery? Nope. Intensity? Nope. Just pleasant company that makes us feel good.      

Low Warmth, Low Strength: John Edwards. The former Senator exemplifies one type of public figure who ends up in this unfortunate position: the scoundrel. Most famous people who are low in both strength and warmth didn't start out there. In 2004 John Edwards was the warm veep candidate in stark contrast with the dour, powerful Dick Cheney. But four years later, after fathering a child out of wedlock while his wife was dying of cancer, he lost the public's respect and affection. The doubters never trusted that Pepsodent smile in the first place. Turns out they were right.

Low Warmth, Low Strength: Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay started as a child actor in Disney movies, which speaks to the warmth that she radiated. That was many trips to rehab ago. America is the land of second chances when it comes to movie stars and their excesses—but while Robert Downey, Jr. showed strength by getting his life on track and warmth by sharing his vulnerability, Lindsay’s warmth has evaporated as she has continued acting out. The emotion we feel now is disdain, because she didn’t care that we cared.         

High Warmth, High Strength: Oprah Winfrey. Oprah’s warmth is legendary. She hugged, she cried, and she didn't hide personal difficulties like struggles with her weight. She actively projected so much warmth that it became her brand. And it was a brand built on trust: If an African-American woman who endured a hellacious childhood could be open, so could the rest of us. Those were the rules. When James Frey broke them, Americans saw Oprah’s righteous strength. If you came into her house playing a con game, there were consequences. Make no mistake—below that soft exterior is a steel core that commands respect.

High Warmth, High Strength: Bill Clinton. The Emoter-in-Chief is still on the national radar more than a dozen years after leaving the West Wing, because he's just that good a communicator. Those who have met him recount experiencing the tractor beam of his undivided attention. He became known for feeling our pain, but he also had the power and drive to do something about it. And even in the face of a cottage industry of scandalmongers, he mostly maintained a sunny optimism that made his opponents look peevish by contrast.

Lukewarm: Bill Gates. Gates won the game of capitalism, which translates into all kinds of strength. And then (unlike Trump) he vowed to give it all to charity to prevent untold suffering. That’s about as warm as it gets. But that’s all on paper: In person, he is not high strength or high warmth. Instead, what we see is a nice, awkward nebbish who doesn’t register much on an emotional level. Contrast that with the late Steve Jobs, whose flair for product demos and signature style made him iconic. If we didn’t know Bill Gates’s story, we wouldn’t give him a second look.

Strength and warmth are in the eye of beholder, so to get a broad sense of someone you need many peoples' perceptions. To see how it works, you can go to this website and rate famous people from Miley Cyrus to Nelson Mandela to everyone in between. Your judgments add to each person’s C-score, which describes their strength and warmth profile.

Then it’s time to think about the strength and warmth you’re projecting. Once you look through the lens of strength and warmth, it changes the way you see everybody, including yourself.

John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut are the co-authors of Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential (Hudson Street Press).