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The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery


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The 'halo effect' is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likable) bleed over into judgments about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly. Because they are often attractive and likable we naturally assume they are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgment and so on. That is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary.

In the same way politicians use the 'halo effect' to their advantage by trying to appear warm and friendly, while saying little of any substance. People tend to believe their policies are good, because the person appears good. It's that simple.

But you would think we could pick up these sorts of mistaken judgments by simply introspecting and, in a manner of speaking, retrace our thought processes back to the original mistake. In the 1970s, well known social psychologist Richard Nisbett set out to demonstrate how little access we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo effect in particular.

Personality appeal of lecturers

Nisbett and Wilson wanted to examine the way student participants made judgments about a lecturer (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Students were told the research was investigating teacher evaluations. Specifically, they were told, the experimenters were interested in whether judgments varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular lecturer. This was a total lie.

In fact the students had been divided into two groups who were going to watch two different videos of the same lecturer, who happened to have a strong Belgian accent (this is relevant!). One group watched the lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner. The second group saw exactly the same person answer exactly the questions in a cold and distant manner. Experimenters made sure it was obvious which of the lecturers alter egos was more likable. In one he appeared to like teaching and students and in the other he came across as a much more authoritarian figure who didn't like teach at all.

After each group of students watched the videos they were asked to rate the lecturer on physical appearance, mannerisms and even his accent (mannerisms were kept the same across both videos). Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the 'warm' incarnation of the lecturer rated him more attractive, his mannerisms more likable and even is accent as more appealing. This was unsurprising as it backed up previous work on the halo effect.

Unconscious judgments

The surprise is that students had no clue whatsoever why they gave one lecturer (performance) higher ratings, even after they were given every chance to see why.

After the study, it was suggested to them that the fact of how much they liked the lecturer might have affected their evaluations. Despite of this direct suggestion/implication, most said that such favorable response had not affected their evaluation of the individual characteristics of the lecturer (performance they experienced).


The students who had seen the lecturer (performance) with a cold and distant attitude reported the reverse.

Some thought their ratings of his individual (cold and distant) characteristics had actually affected their global evaluation of his personalityl appeal. That is - these students felt that it was "their fault" the way their graded the instructor's personality appeal


Even after this, the experimenters were not satisfied.

They interviewed students again to ask them whether it was possible their global evaluation of the lecturer had affected their ratings of the lecturer's attributes.

Still, the students told them it hadn't. They were convinced they had made their judgment about the lecturer's physical appearance, mannerisms and accent without considering how likable he was.


Common uses of the halo effect

The halo effect in itself is fascinating and now well known in the business world. According to Reputation Marketing by John Marconi, books that have 'Harvard Classics' written on the front can demand twice the price of the exact same book without the Harvard endorsement. The same is true in the fashion industry. The addition of a well known fashion designer's name to a simple pair of jeans can inflate their price tremendously.

But what this experiment demonstrates is that although we can understand the halo effect intellectually, we often have no idea when it is actually happening. This is what makes it such a useful effect for marketers and politicians. We quite naturally make the kinds of adjustments demonstrated in this experiment without even realizing it. And then, even when it's pointed out to us, we may well still deny it.

So, the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of designer jeans or decide whether you like someone, ask yourself whether the halo effect is operating.

Are you really evaluating the traits of the person or product you think you are?

Is some global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgment?

This simple check could save you voting for the wrong person, wasting your money, rejecting someone who would be a loyal friend of making a choice which will have Eternal consequences.




Reference

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(4), 250-6.


Original Publication date: October 2007

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