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Lawyers Ranked Second to Last – Just Above Prostitutes – for Trustworthiness
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Summary: On September 15, 2014, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a study by Susan T. Fiske, a psychology and public affairs professor at Princeton, and Cydney Dupree, a Princeton graduate student, which confirmed the age-old stereotype that lawyers cannot be trusted is alive and well in the eyes of the American public.

The study focused on what people believe the American perception is for certain jobs in terms of competence, warmth, capability, and trustworthiness to find which professions had high credibility as communicators.

  
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The study first gave a group of adults a piece of paper with 16 blank lines and asked “Off the top of your head, what various groups of people do you think today’s society categorizes based on occupation or job?” Not surprisingly, lawyer was among the most common answers. Then, a new group of adults were asked “to what extent do most Americans view holders of this job as competent? Warm? Capable? Trustworthy?” According to the article, credibility as a communicator comes from an audience believing the speaker is trustworthy and has expertise.

Because a lawyer spends a majority of his day communicating to clients, the court, and opposing counsel, maintaining high communicator credibility is important. While lawyers ranked high in competence and capability, they were ranked second to last, above only prostitutes, for warmth and trustworthiness. Fiske and Dupree make the following observation about the professions that have high competence but low warmth:

“The fourth corner lists the ambivalently perceived high-competence, low-warmth, “envied” professions: lawyers, chief executive officers, engineers, accountants, scientists, and researchers. They earn respect but not trust. Being seen as competent but cold might not seem problematic until one recalls that communicator credibility requires not just status and expertise (competence) but also trustworthiness (warmth). People report envy and jealousy toward groups in this space. These are mixed emotions that include both admiration and resentment.”

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The article also provides insight into the relationship lawyers have with their clients and opposing counsel: “Audiences who are operating on automatic (not thinking very hard) are instantly inclined to agree with experts. However, expertise can also trigger close scrutiny, if the audience is motivated and has the opportunity to think hard.” Perhaps that is why clients tend to believe their lawyer and opposing counsel is always so skeptical.

Therefore, it appears lawyers may benefit from demonstrating to their clients, opposing counsel, and judges that they are warm and trustworthy. After all, according to Fiske and Dupree, “trust most often makes audiences automatically believe in the message’s validity,” and nothing would be more helpful to a lawyer than having their arguments be so well received.



“Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics” by Susan T. Fiske and Cydney Dupree available at http://www.pnas.org/content/111/Supplement_4/13593.full.



 

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