a halo surrounding a person formed by the sun

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect is one of my favorite illustrations of self-delusion. In part because it is so common. But more because it is just so irrational most of the time. The basic idea of the halo effect is that when decisions or evaluations are difficult, instead of focusing on the most important or most diagnostic attributes, we focus on the one(s) that are easiest to evaluate.

One of the most insidious examples is the effect in which we support politicians based on their likeability rather than the quality of their policy provisions. It is much easier to decide if he or she seems like someone I would like to go have a beer with than if their tax policy would improve the economy. But we don’t admit this shortcut, even to ourselves. Studies show that people really believe that the tax policy makes sense. In the December You Are Not So Smart Podcast, one of my favorite sources of valuable insights into behavioral science, host David McRaney interviews Phil Rosenzweig who just wrote an entire book about it (unsurprisingly called “The Halo Effect“.

My Take

As a consultant, the effect worries me. One study described in the book demonstrated that one’s professional work is evaluated in part based on what you look like. Essays by scientists with attractive photos were evaluated as more meaningful than those with less attractive photos. Same thing with university professors.

What is worse, this is completely invisible to the subject. Being able to use the attractiveness likeability, or otherwise irrelevant attribute makes the subject more confident in their evaluation of the science or policy or teaching skills.

I suppose we can use this to our advantage as well. We can attach attractive photos to the most reliable research when assigning papers for students to read. This would be deceptive unless the researchers really were attractive. But do the ends justify the means?

Your Turn

Are you familiar with the halo effect? Do you fall victim to it or exploit it? Or are you skeptical? If the latter, I recommend reading the book or at least listening to the YANSS podcast interview.

Image credit: Cindy McFee

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