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Post No.: 0232halo


Fluffystealthkitten says:


The ‘halo effect’ occurs when Spartans, while playing multiplayer, tend to have an irrepressible urge to repeatedly jump up and down in an attempt to dodge getting headshot; which is a technique one should not try to copy in real life.


…Not really! The halo effect is the tendency for people to assume that a person’s (or organisation’s) positive traits spill over from one area to another. An example of the halo effect is assuming that physically attractive and confident people are also clever, kind, trustworthy and other socially desirable traits. This generalisation is a cognitive shortcut or bias, and as such it is frequently unreliable even if it often appears to work out correctly.


The halo effect also occurs when the overall impression of a person (or organisation) is positively influenced by whatever desirable is associated with it or is merely proximal to it. For instance, a brand putting its name to a sporting event in order to make the brand seem more health conscious. And it should be noted that those who/that intrinsically lack certain desired qualities tend to be those who/that wish to portray how much they possess those very qualities the most or the hardest, such as an oil processing company trying its hardest to convince the market how ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ it is, when even your local beekeeper or allotment doesn’t shout about it despite them being far more environmentally friendlier! Before relevant bans were introduced in certain countries, tobacco companies sponsored many sporting events. Associating smoking with athleticism – think about that for a second(!)


So ‘if you barely have or don’t quite have a desirable quality then try to associate yourself with it or shout louder about it’ is a typical marketing and PR ploy to manipulate people’s perceptions of a company or brand. (It’s a ploy that individuals often use too when they boast about themselves.) Emotive words and/or imagery are also typically used to influence attitudes or behaviours (e.g. via likeability or fear), thus exploiting the ‘affect heuristic’. But I guess these kinds of manipulations (and more) wouldn’t be so commonly employed if people weren’t so easily manipulable.


The reverse effect is the ‘horn effect’ or ‘devil effect’, where a person (or organisation) with a negative trait is generalised with an assumption that their other traits must be negative too, or where people are negatively judged by whatever undesirable is associated with or proximal to it.


But we should not automatically assume, with the halo effect or horn effect, that if someone did something really noble then she/he cannot also have done something really appalling too, or vice-versa. Meow.


The tendency to like/dislike everything about a person or other thing, including (or especially) things we don’t really know much about because all we know is that we like/dislike the one or two traits we’ve observed about them, is the halo effect/horn effect in action – we assume coherency in everything we perceive, as if the world is more black or white than it really is. If you like someone’s political views, you’ll likely like their voice and appearance, and are predisposed to believe they are honest and intelligent too (which may make you like them even more); and vice-versa. The halo and horn effects play a large role in shaping our views of people and situations. It’s about overly broad-stroked generalisations and is related to stereotypes. It’s one of the most common and pervasive reasons why the representation of the world our intuition generates is simpler and more coherent than the real, more nuanced, thing.


Via ‘associative coherence’ – unless ever categorically or unambiguously proven otherwise for a particular person in question – good traits go together with other good traits, and bad traits go together with other bad traits. When real evidence is missing, the gap is filled by an assumption that is coherent with one’s emotional response towards the person. Assuming coherency leads to thinking, for instance, ‘if they’re hiding this then maybe they’re hiding other things’ or ‘if they’re good at dancing then they’re going to be good in bed’. And you can guess that assuming coherency is linked with making gross over-simplifications.


And due to ‘confirmation bias’ – if we like someone then any allegation made against them will be met with critical ‘system two’ (“Are you sure?”) and if we don’t like them then the same allegation made against them will be met with uncritical ‘system one’ (“That ****!”) We haven’t seen or heard any evidence for the specific case in question yet, yet we’ve made an initial verdict already. We tend to believe that people who are kind and caring cannot be selfish and conniving too, or vice-versa – but people can absolutely behave differently in different situations.


Our first emotional impressions therefore matter because our first impressions are over-weighted, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is disregarded altogether. How we interpret every subsequent piece of information about a person is influenced by it because they’re viewed through the lens of that initial judgement (e.g. a person described as ‘smart, hard-working, stubborn, envious’ is perceived more favourably than someone described as ‘envious, stubborn, hard-working, smart’). So the sequence that information is presented to us matters to our impressions. But a sequence is often determined by chance (e.g. meeting a normally nice person for the first time when they were having an unusually bad day) or by manipulation (e.g. a player who puts on all the charm for you when you both first meet). Yet the ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ tends to self-reinforce because our first impressions regulate how we interpret all subsequent (especially ambiguous or unknown) elements about them in order to maintain a consistency with those first impressions, which shows how sequence orders and first impressions matter – so, in general, present your best attributes and arguments first.


If someone gave you a good first impression then any subsequent vague or ambiguous information about them will be given the benefit of the doubt and be interpreted favourably too, and vice-versa, in an unfair manner. For instance, if you are a teacher then top-grade students should not be given the benefit of the doubt with subsequent work that’s vague or ambiguous, and low-grade students should not be treated with doubt with subsequent work that’s similarly vague or ambiguous. One must consider putting in place some kind of mechanism to avoid/minimise such biases when marking papers (e.g. mark them anonymously?) and not be tempted to revise grades if a student gives a great essay followed by a terrible essay, or vice-versa. If you learn to de-correlate errors then the most accurate and fair grade for a student will eventually emerge in the long run instead of systematically and continuously skew and amplify. So if you’re on the other side of the table – be cautious about over-weighting your first impressions of other people, ideas or things.


Sometimes people and things in the real world are just really complicated, have high variance and low consistency, and this must be accepted without attempting to oversimplify opinions or conclusions into something that is pithy or terse, and we must not be tempted to reduce any discrepancy between our first and subsequent judgements (to reduce cognitive dissonance), even though this leaves a more grey, unclear, nuanced, less cognitively easy and less comfortable worldview that we cannot be cocksure about.


Learn to therefore be comfortable with cognitive dissonance or incoherence/variability, especially when the sample size or number of trials is small (e.g. you’ve only known someone briefly and seen them in a limited range of scenarios). What’s cognitively easy to grasp (e.g. the bias that people who did or are associated with bad things cannot also do good things, or vice-versa) and therefore makes you feel happy, doesn’t necessarily make a judgement accurate – so take everything that is independent (e.g. a person’s beauty and their trustworthiness) on an independent case-by-case basis and don’t rely on making generalisations or preconceptions. Don’t try to judge someone’s overall character after observing only one or two traits about them and then trying to match any subsequent observations with these first impressions to confirm your initial biases. Our first impressions aren’t always reliable and/or could’ve been intentionally manipulated anyway, such as via exploiting the halo or horn effects.


The power of associations is very strong though. For example, namesakes, or if something looks or sounds like something else or is merely proximal to it then it is assumed to possess all of the same qualities as that something else. It’s a fallacious logic but it can work on the public powerfully. Marketing and branding essentially preys on this principle (e.g. using successful sportspeople in adverts to associate their ‘winning’ with the company). Associations are so powerful that even mere bearers of good news tend to get treated well and bearers of bad news tend to get treated harshly. They’re just the messengers but they get associated with the messages they bring. Associations are so powerful that if we like/hate someone, we can like/hate everything that’s idiosyncratically associated with them too (e.g. if you’ve only ever known one person in real life who wore a rattail and she/he wasn’t very nice then you may preconceive that anyone who wears a rattail is to be avoided too, which would be unfair on those strangers).


A name given to a product may have associations, but these associations don’t materially affect the content of an object that bears that name (e.g. a ‘superfood’, which is merely a term invented by marketers rather than has a clear scientific definition). Yet our expectations and experiences of an object are often irrationally affected by its name (e.g. we might end up paying over the odds for a ‘superfood’) i.e. our experiences are never plainly objective – our experiences and reality don’t have a one-to-one relationship due to our many subconscious and unconscious biases we’re not consciously aware of. The same applies to names and people (although sometimes people can treat their own names as a self-fulfilling prophecy; for better or worse).


Corporate brands and celebrities like to try to associate themselves with charities to exploit the halo effect. Well some genuinely do care about the causes they support but many would cease to care if they didn’t receive any publicity or acknowledgement for their involvement because they’re doing it primarily for the sake of their own public image and perceived reputation rather than their heart. The charities should arguably still take their money but we cannot always trust reputations because a lot of them are carefully fabricated, exaggerated or one-sided – as part of marketing or public relations rather than as a true core ethos.


So the halo effect and related horn effect are together one of the ways ‘system one’ perceives the world as simpler, less ambiguous and more coherent than it really is. And since these effects can be used to manipulate others – be careful about these effects manipulating you. You most probably recognise that you are a complex, three-dimensional character who’s not as virtuous as some people think and not as bad as some people think. Well other people are complex too.




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