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Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 JANUARY, 2014

Alice in Quantumland: A Charming Illustrated Allegory of Quantum Mechanics by a CERN Physicist


Down the rabbit hole of antimatter, or how to believe six impossible things about gender stereotypes before breakfast.

As a lover of science and of all things Alice in Wonderland, imagine my delight at discovering Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics (public library) — an imaginative and unusual 1995 quantum primer by particle physicist Robert Gilmore, who has under his belt experience at Stanford and CERN.

Besides the clever concept, two things make the book especially remarkable: It flies in the face of gender stereotypes with a female protagonist who sets out to make sense of some of the most intense science of all time, and it features Gilmore’s own magnificent illustrations for a perfect intersection of art and science, true to recent research indicating that history’s most successful scientists also dabbled in the arts.

Gilmore writes in the preface:

In the first half of the twentieth century, our understanding in the Universe was turned upside down. The old classical theories of physics were p=replaced by a new way of looking at the world — quantum mechanics. This is in many ways at variance with the ideas of the older Newtonian mechanics; indeed, in many ways it is at variance with our common sense. Nevertheless, the strangest thing about these theories is their extraordinary success in predicting the observed behavior of physical systems. However nonsensical quantum mechanics may at times appear to us, that seems to be the way that Nature wants it — and so we have to play along.

This book is an allegory of quantum physics, in the dictionary sense of “a narrative describing one subject under the guise of another.” The way that things behave in quantum mechanics seems very odd to our normal way of thinking and is made more acceptable when we consider analogies to situations with which we are all familiar, even though the analogies may be inexact. Such analogies can never be very true to reality as quantum processes are really quite different from our normal experience.


The Quantumland in which Alice travels is rather like a theme park in which Alice is sometimes an observer, while sometimes she behaves as a sort of particle with varying electric charge. This Quantumland shows the essential features of the quantum world: the world that we all inhabit.

While much of the narrative might appear nonsensical at first sight, “and possibly it may seem so at the second, third, and twenty-fifth sight as well,” Gilmore reminds us that this is the very point of the exercise. He cites godfather of quantum mechanics:

Neils Bohr … is said to have remarked that anyone who did not feel dizzy when thinking about quantum theory had not understood it.<

And so, Alice’s journey is off to a properly dizzying start as she falls into a contemporary rabbit hole — the swirling, sparkling TV screen — and ends up in Quantumland. There, we follow her as she visits the Heisenberg Bank and the Mechanics Institute, learning about the curiouser and curiouser behaviors of particles. She marvels at the Uncertain Accountant, whose attempts to balance books are befuddled by energy fluctuations driven by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The State Agent shows her that, thanks to the Pauli Exclusion Principle, a particle can be two places at once.

She meets the Classical Mechanic and the Quantum Mechanic, who demonstrate the difference between Newtonian physics and quantum physics in a game of billiards:

“Excuse me, is this the Mechanics Institute, please?” asked Alice, mostly for the sake of making conversation. She knew from the notice outside that it must be.

“Yes, my dear girl,” said the taller and more impressive looking off the two. “I myself am a Classical Mechanic from ClassicWorld, and I am visiting my colleague here, who is a Quantum Mechanic. Whatever your problem is, I am sure that between us we will be able to assist you, if you would just wait a moment while we finish our shots.

Both men turned back to the billiards table. The Classical Mechanic took careful aim, clearly judging all th e angles involved to within a tiny fraction of a degree. At last, he very deliberately played his shot. The ball bounced to and fro in a remarkable series of ricochets, ending in a collision with the red ball and knocking it squarely into the center of a hole. “There you are,” he exclaimed with satisfaction as he retrieved the ball from the pocket. “That is the way to do it, you kno; careful and exact observation followed by precise action. If you do things that way you can produce any result you choose.

His companion did not respond, but took his place at the table and made a vague stab with his cue. . . . The ball shot off in every direction at once, so that there was no part of the table where [Alice] could say definitely that the ball had not gone, though equally she could in no way say where it actually was. After a moment the player went over and peered into one of the pockets, then reached in and drew out a red ball.

“If you do not mind me saying so,” said Alice, “you do seem to play the game very differently.”

Some adventures later, Alice meets the Little Mermaid, from who she learns about the theory of many worlds:

“As you know,” she began in a liquid, musical voice, “I am a creature of two worlds. I live in the sea and am equally at home upon the land. But this is as nothing compared with the number of worlds which we all inhabit, for we are all citizens of many worlds — many, many worlds. . . .

The quantum rules … apply to the whole world, to everything. There is no limit to the idea of the superposition of states. When an observer looks at a superposition of quantum states you would expect him or her to see all of the effects that are appropriate to the selection of states present. This is what does happen; one observer does see all the results, or rather the observer also is in a superposition of different states, and each state of the observer has seen the result that goes with one of the states, in the original mixture. Each state is simply extended to include the observer in the act of seeing that particular state.

This is not the way that it seems to us, but that is because the different states of the observer are not aware of one another. When an electron passes through a screen with two slits in it, then it might pass through to the left or to the right. What you observe to happen is pure chance. You might see that the electron has gone to the left, but there will be another you that will have seen the electron go to the right. At the point at which you observe the electron, you split into two versions of yourself, one to see each possible result. If these two versions never get together again, then each remains totally unaware of the other’s existence. The world has split into two worlds with slightly different versions of you in them. . . .”

In fact, the most interesting chapter of the book deals with this notion of two versions of oneself, exploring virtual reality as Alice collides with a backwards version of herself, an anti-Alice, while strolling in a beautiful flower garden with the Quantum Mechanic. To understand what made that encounter possible, Alice visits the State Agent, who presents her with an apparatus for seeing the virtual particles of antimatter.

What’s particularly remarkable about this passage is that in addition to serving the allegorical purposes of Gilmore’s quantum story, it also presages with astounding prescience augmented reality tools like Google Glass nearly twenty years before their existence:

[The State Agent brought out] a large and highly technical looking helmet. This had a transparent visor which entirely covered the front, and there was a long cable attached to a socket at the back. The cable snaked away along the path by which he had come until it was lost from sight in the distance. “Here it is,” he said triumphantly, “a marvel of modern technology. Just put this on, and you will see the world of virtual particles.”

Alice felt a little nervous as she contemplated the helmet. It was large, and it looked very complicated and even, she felt, a little sinister. However, if this was going to reveal the virtual particles she had heard mentioned so often, she was prepared to try it. She put the helmet on her head. It was very heavy. The Agent reached across to the helmet and made some adjustment at the side of her head, where Alice was unable to see. The view through the visor clouded over with little sparkling dots and…

When her view through the visor cleared, it had dramatically changed. Alice could still see the electrons in their various levels, but now instead of their appearing to be within a tall building she saw them as enmeshed in a network of vivid lines which joined one electron to another, so that they looked as much as anything like flies caught in some great spider’s web of shining strands. . . .

Here, Gilmore slips in some equally prescient and rather ominous commentary on the greed that motivates those eager to exploit technological innovation:

As Alice was watching this strange scene with interest, the helmet emitted a whirring noise beside her ear, followed immediately by a loud “clunk.” The view in front of her shimmered and returned to the mundane view she had seen before she put on the helmet. Alice exclaimed aloud in annoyance at losing the fascinating picture. “I am sorry,” said the Agent. “I am afraid that there is a timer built into the mechanism. I had intended to make it coin-operated, you see.”

Despite his mercantile motives, the Agent explains to Alice how the photons she just observed through the virtual reality helmet explain her encounter in the garden:

“What happened to you would have appeared to the rest of the world as an unusually high-energy photon giving up its energy to create an Alice and an anti-Alice. The anti-Alice would travel along until it collided with an Alice and the two mutually annihilated one another, converting their energy back to photons.”

“How can that be?” cried Alice in some dismay. “I do not see how this anti-Alice could ever have found a second Alice to collide with anyway. There is only one of me and I certainly haven’t been annihilated,” she concluded defiantly.

“Ah, but what I have just described is how it would appear to the rest of the world. How it would appear to you is quite different, quite different altogether. For you the annihilation would come before the creation of course.”

“I do not see any ‘of course’ about it,” answered Alice rather sharply. “How can anything be destroyed before it is created?”

“Why, that is the natural order of things when you are going backward in time. Normally, when you move forward in time you expect creation to come before destruction don’t you?”

“Yes, of course I do,” replied Alice.

“Well in that case, if you move backward in time you naturally expect the creation to come after destruction from your point of view. You are experiencing events in reverse order after all. I would have expected you to see that for yourself.

“In this case you were walking quietly along with the Quantum Mechanic and suddenly you collided with the anti-Alice. As far as your companion was concerned you and the anti-Alice were both utterly destroyed and your mass energy was carried off by high-energy photons.”

Since the notion of multiple simultaneous states is fundamental to quantum mechanics, it’s a recurring theme in Gilmore’s narrative. Later on, Alice visits the Experimental Physics Phun Phair, where the Great Paradoxus, “a tall figure with glossy black hair, a spiky waxed mustache, and a flowing black cloak,” summons two volunteers for an experiment he is demonstrating. Naturally, those are the twins, the Quantumland counterparts to Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee:

Eventually, two people were pushed forward. Both were dressed in long frock coats and narrow trousers, and both had bushy side whiskers. Both wore waistcoats, each with a gold chain attached to a watch which its owner had obviously checked recently against a reliable standard clock. These two were not actually identical to one another, since only particles are completely identical, but they were certainly very much alike. They were obviously both honorable, honest, and reliable as well as being competent and conscientious observers. If they were to say that they had seen something, no one would dream of disputing it.

Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, certain to engage the simultaneous states of entertainment and education with unequaled grace. Complement it with scientists’ answers to little kids’ questions about how the world works, then bend your mind by considering what it’s like to live in a universe of ten dimensions. For a look at how physicists’ understanding of the field has evolved in the years since Gilmore’s Quantumland, see Brian Cox’s enchanting The Quantum Universe.

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29 JANUARY, 2014

Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives


How to fine-tune the internal monologue that scores every aspect of our lives, from leadership to love.

“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve,” Debbie Millman counseled in one of the best commencement speeches ever given, urging: “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities…” Far from Pollyanna platitude, this advice actually reflects what modern psychology knows about how belief systems about our own abilities and potential fuel our behavior and predict our success. Much of that understanding stems from the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, synthesized in her remarkably insightful Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (public library), which explores the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how changing even the simplest of them can have profound impact on nearly every aspect of our lives.

One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, Dweck found in her research, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality. A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

The consequences of believing that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being immutably engrained traits, Dweck found in her two decades of research with both children and adults, are remarkable. She writes:

For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.


I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

At the heart of what makes the “growth mindset” so winsome, Dweck found, is that it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning. Dweck writes:

Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

This idea, of course, isn’t new — if anything, it’s the fodder of self-help books and vacant “You can do anything!” platitudes. What makes Dweck’s work different, however, is that it is rooted in rigorous research on how the mind — especially the developing mind — works, identifying not only the core drivers of those mindsets but also how they can be reprogrammed.

Dweck and her team found that people with the fixed mindset see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies, revealing that they come up short in some way. But the relationship between mindset and effort is a two-way street:

It’s not just that some people happen to recognize the value of challenging themselves and the importance of effort. Our research has shown that this comes directly from the growth mindset. When we teach people the growth mindset, with its focus on development, these ideas about challenge and effort follow. . . .

As you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another—how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.


The mindsets change what people strive for and what they see as success. . . they change the definition, significance, and impact of failure. . . they change the deepest meaning of effort.

Dweck cites a poll of 143 creativity researchers, who concurred that the number-one trait underpinning creative achievement is precisely the kind of resilience and fail-forward perseverance attributed to the growth mindset. She writes:

When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

But her most remarkable research, which has informed present theories of why presence is more important than praise in teaching children to cultivate a healthy relationship with achievement, explores how these mindsets are born — they form, it turns out, very early in life. In one seminal study, Dweck and her colleagues offered four-year-olds a choice: They could either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle, or try a harder one. Even these young children conformed to the characteristics of one of the two mindsets — those with “fixed” mentality stayed on the safe side, choosing the easier puzzles that would affirm their existing ability, articulating to the researchers their belief that smart kids don’t make mistakes; those with the “growth” mindset thought it an odd choice to begin with, perplexed why anyone would want to do the same puzzle over and over if they aren’t learning anything new. In other words, the fixed-mindset kids wanted to make sure they succeeded in order to seem smart, whereas the growth-mindset ones wanted to stretch themselves, for their definition of success was about becoming smarter.

Dweck quotes one seventh-grade girl, who captured the difference beautifully:

I think intelligence is something you have to work for … it isn’t just given to you.… Most kids, if they’re not sure of an answer, will not raise their hand to answer the question. But what I usually do is raise my hand, because if I’m wrong, then my mistake will be corrected. Or I will raise my hand and say, ‘How would this be solved?’ or ‘I don’t get this. Can you help me?’ Just by doing that I’m increasing my intelligence.

Things got even more interesting when Dweck brought people into Columbia’s brain-wave lab to study how their brains behaved as they answered difficult questions and received feedback. What she found was that those with a fixed mindset were only interested in hearing feedback that reflected directly on their present ability, but tuned out information that could help them learn and improve. They even showed no interest in hearing the right answer when they had gotten a question wrong, because they had already filed it away in the failure category. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, were keenly attentive to information that could help them expand their existing knowledge and skill, regardless of whether they’d gotten the question right or wrong — in other words, their priority was learning, not the binary trap of success and failure.

These findings are especially important in education and how we, as a culture, assess intelligence. In another study of hundreds of students, mostly adolescents, Dweck and her colleagues gave each ten fairly challenging problems from a nonverbal IQ test, then praised the student for his or her performance — most had done pretty well. But they offered two types of praise: Some students were told “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this,” while others, “Wow, you got [X many] right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” In other words, some were praised for ability and others for effort. The findings, at this point, are unsurprising yet jarring:

The ability praise pushed students right into the fixed mindset, and they showed all the signs of it, too: When we gave them a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from. They didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent.


In contrast, when students were praised for effort, 90 percent of them wanted the challenging new task that they could learn from.

The most interesting part, however, is what happened next: When Dweck and her colleagues gave the students a subsequent set of harder problems, on which the students didn’t do so well. Suddenly, the ability-praised kids thought they weren’t so smart or gifted after all. Dweck puts it poignantly:

If success had meant they were intelligent, then less-than-success meant they were deficient.

But for the effort-praised kids, the difficulty was simply an indication that they had to put in more effort, not a sign of failure or a reflection of their poor intellect. Perhaps most importantly, the two mindsets also impacted the kids’ level of enjoyment — everyone enjoyed the first round of easier questions, which most kids got right, but as soon as the questions got more challenging, the ability-praised kids no longer had any fun, while the effort-praised ones not only still enjoyed the problems but even said that the more challenging, the more fun. The latter also had significant improvements in their performance as the problems got harder, while the former kept getting worse and worse, as if discouraged by their own success-or-failure mindset.

It gets better — or worse, depending on how we look at it: The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. She laments:

In the fixed mindset, imperfections are shameful — especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away. What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.

This illustrates the key difference between the two mindsets — for those with a growth one, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed one, “success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.” For the latter, setbacks are a sentence and a label. For the former, they’re motivating, informative input — a wakeup call.

But one of the most profound applications of this insight has to do not with business or education but with love. Dweck found that people exhibited the same dichotomy of dispositions in their personal relationships: Those with a fixed mindset believed their ideal mate would put them on a pedestal and make them feel perfect, like “the god of a one-person religion,” whereas those with the growth mindset preferred a partner who would recognize their faults and lovingly help improve them, someone who would encourage them to learn new things and became a better person. The fixed mindset, it turns out, is at the root of many of our most toxic cultural myths about “true love.” Dweck writes:

The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All — you, your partner, and the relationship — are capable of growth and change.

In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like “they lived happily ever after.”


One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince.

This also applies to the myth of mind-reading, where the fixed mindset believes that an ideal couple should be able to read each other’s minds and finish each other’s sentences. She cites a study that invited people to talk about their relationships:

Those with the fixed mindset felt threatened and hostile after talking about even minor discrepancies in how they and their partner saw their relationship. Even a minor discrepancy threatened their belief that they shared all of each other’s views.

But most destructive of all relationship myths is the belief that if it requires work, something is terribly wrong and that any discrepancy of opinions or preferences is indicative of character flaws on behalf of one’s partner. Dweck offers a reality check:

Just as there are no great achievements without setbacks, there are no great relationships without conflicts and problems along the way.

When people with a fixed mindset talk about their conflicts, they assign blame. Sometimes they blame themselves, but often they blame their partner. And they assign blame to a trait — a character flaw.

But it doesn’t end there. When people blame their partner’s personality for the problem, they feel anger and disgust toward them.

And it barrels on: Since the problem comes from fixed traits, it can’t be solved. So once people with the fixed mindset see flaws in their partners, they become contemptuous of them and dissatisfied with the whole relationship.

Those with the growth mindset, on the other hand, can acknowledge their partners’ imperfections, without assigning blame, and still feel that they have a fulfilling relationship. They see conflicts as problems of communication, not of personality or character. This dynamic holds true as much in romantic partnerships as in friendship and even in people’s relationships with their parents. Dweck summarizes her findings:

When people embark on a relationship, they encounter a partner who is different from them, and they haven’t learned how to deal with the differences. In a good relationship, people develop these skills and, as they do, both partners grow and the relationship deepens. But for this to happen, people need to feel they’re on the same side. . . . As an atmosphere of trust developed, they [become] vitally interested in each other’s development.

What it all comes down to is that a mindset is an interpretative process that tells us what is going on around us. In the fixed mindset, that process is scored by an internal monologue of constant judging and evaluation, using every piece of information as evidence either for or against such assessments as whether you’re a good person, whether your partner is selfish, or whether you are better than the person next to you. In a growth mindset, on the other hand, the internal monologue is not one of judgment but one of voracious appetite for learning, constantly seeking out the kind of input that you can metabolize into learning and constructive action.

In the rest of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck goes on to explore how these fundamental mindsets form, what their defining characteristics are in different contexts of life, and how we can rewire our cognitive habits to adopt the much more fruitful and nourishing growth mindset.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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28 JANUARY, 2014

What Makes People Compelling


The art of mastering the vital osmosis of two conflicting qualities.

What makes a winning personality? How can some people walk into a room and instantly entrance everyone into a state of amicable submission? What makes someone like Carl Sagan at once so beloved and so respected? That’s precisely what communications strategists John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut, who met while working at Harvard, explore in Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential (public library) — a synthesis of six years’ worth of their research and experience of working with Nobel Prize winners, CEOs, media personalities, politicians, and NASA commanders.

It turns out that when we assess someone’s personality, we pay heed to two main criteria: “strength,” which as a personal quality is a measure of how well a person can will the world into obedience, and “warmth,” which induces a sense of belonging or being cared for, often through shared interests or concerns. Neffinger and Kohut explain how the two come into play and interplay:

Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. 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. . . . People who project both strength and warmth impress us as knowing what they are doing and having our best interests at heart, so we trust them and find them persuasive. They seem willing (warm) and able (strong) to look out for our interests, so we look to them for leadership and feel comfortable knowing they are in charge. Strength and warmth are the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge.

They illustrate this with a few examples of where that vital osmosis of strength and warmth works or fails:

The waitress’s sweet talk projects warmth, while her level gaze suggests she does not put up with nonsense. The boss’s awkward posture projects insecurity and undercuts his employees’ respect for him. The customer service rep projects warmth by sympathizing with the caller, saying that the snafu must have been aggravating — but then expresses confusion about the problem, projecting weakness and losing the caller’s confidence. Like a cost-benefit analysis or a pros-and-cons list, the strength + warmth lens reveals something fundamental about our experience.

But while reading those signals happens in a deeply intuitive, almost automatic way — even if we aren’t initially able to name that the emanation of “strength” is what’s winning our respect for a person or the absence of “warmth” is rendering another unlikable — sending them is a whole other matter. Learning to control our own emissions of these two critical qualities, Neffinger and Kohut argue, is an extraordinarily disorienting endeavor — attempting to project both strength and warmth simultaneously is incredibly hard:

Strength and warmth are in direct tension with each other. Most of the things we do to project strength of character — wearing a serious facial expression, flexing our biceps, or flexing our vocabulary — tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, most signals of warmth — smiling often, speaking softly, doing people favors — can leave us seeming more submissive than strong.


The ability to master this tension, to project both strength and warmth at once, is rare— so rare, in fact, that we celebrate, elevate, and envy those people who manage it. We even have special names for this ability. The ancient Greeks called it “the divine gift,” from which we get the word “charisma.” Today it goes by different names in different circles: It is called “leadership potential” in the modern workplace, “cool” in social settings, and even just “it” in the entertainment business, as in “She’s got it!”

In the rest of Compelling People, Neffinger and Kohut go on to explore how variables like gender, ethnicity, body type, and age might affect this interplay and offer a framework for mastering the vital balance between strength and warmth, both in professional and personal contexts.

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