Patients see empathetic physicians as more competent

The so-called "warmth/competence trade-off" — in which people perceive an inverse relationship between empathy and competence — may not hold true for physicians, according to a recent study from Yale University, published in PLOS ONE.

Based on the study's findings, patients perceive their physicians as more competent when they demonstrate empathy through nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact and body language. Researchers conducted the study online by asking participants to judge a physician's warmth and competence based on still photographs of empathetic and "unemphathetic" nonverbal behavior between a physician and patient, coupled with the same script. They also tested the script with photographs of physicians wearing white coats and those not wearing white coats.

The results indicated patients perceived physicians who demonstrated empathetic nonverbal behaviors as more warm and competent, regardless of the presence of a white coat.

"Our findings might reflect a changing concept of the role of doctors in our society," study author Gordon Kraft-Todd, a PhD student in Yale's Human Cooperation Laboratory, wrote in an article on the study for Scientific American. "No longer are they judged solely on their technical competence — that is, their ability to perform medical procedures. Rather they may increasingly be judged on their interpersonal competence — that is, their ability to navigate the difficult social interactions inherent in managing patients' illness and wellness."

These findings are important because the relationship between perceived warmth and competence does not always go hand in hand. In some scenarios when a person is perceived as friendlier, research indicates people tend to perceive them as less confident, and vice versa, Mr. Kraft-Todd writes. However, the study demonstrates physicians should practice both hard and soft skills to best manage patients' experience and health.


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