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Blinded by a halo

Think you’re getting the message? Chances are it’s seriously distorted according to who speaks or writes when you’re listening or reading

Could you, in a single glance, determine whether a character in a movie was a “good” one or an “evil” one? Sure, some actors, blessed with faces that make them celebrated villains of the big screen, are almost invariably cast as the baddie, but that is hardly a robust method.

Producers of westerns during the interbellum between the two world wars of the last century made it easy: the heroes in their movies wore white hats, while the villains had black ones. This was a wonderfully simple heuristic for early cinema goers, which helped a great deal with following the dynamic of the tale (and anticipating the eventual ending). As audiences and stories became more sophisticated, however, that practice went out of fashion.

Category error

But the trick with the hats successfully hooked into a tendency to categorize people that we still very much possess. Whether it’s personal acquaintances or figures in the public eye, we happily put them into boxes, and once we’ve put someone in a particular box, it is really hard to listen to what they say without prejudging it based on the perception we have of them. In a very interesting blogpost earlier this week, Mike Konczal, a journalist and fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, describes his experience watching once again Donald Trump’s rallies from the month before the election.

He confesses to having watched them the first time round with the presumption that Trump was unlikely to win. For Konczal, as for many of Trump’s Democratic (and indeed Republican) opponents, back then anything he said got lost in the coverage of the insults and the scandals. But the second time round, his speeches are those from a guy who would be elected, and a whole different story emerges. There are simple, consistent messages about jobs (bring them back), the economic adversaries (elites and immigrants), economic policies (lower taxes), trade (America first) and so on.

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Of course these messages were there for anyone to hear all along, but once you’ve decided to categorize Donald Trump as someone unlikely to be elected, you’re not going to treat what he says with the seriousness that you would afford to the speeches of a future president.

In a sense, many of Donald Trump’s detractors committed what is known as a category error: attributing features to someone or something that cannot possess them, or the converse — denying features to someone or something because you believe they do not belong to the relevant category. Treating him as “not in the least presidential material” would be enough to dismiss what he says — similar to the third party candidates. But many people would have gone much further, positively despising Trump and the ‘deplorables’ that support him. That is really much the same as providing him with a metaphorical black hat.

Hello halo

And that is a propensity that can play tricks on us. Nearly 100 years ago, American psychologist Edward Thorndike studied how commanding officers rated their soldiers across a range of physical and mental qualities, and found that subjects who got high scores in one area almost always got high scores elsewhere too — the correlation between unrelated traits was, in his words, “too high and too even”. He coined the term halo for this phenomenon– it was as if the observer saw one likeable trait as radiating positive judgement, like the halo of a saint, across a whole range of unrelated traits. This tendency to extrapolate became more widely known as the halo effect*, which effectively works both ways: we may just as easily project a bad characteristic or a negative impression onto a whole person.

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We do this much of the time, and what is worse, we don’t realize we do it, as Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, then psychologists at the University of Michigan, found in an experiment in 1977. They staged two interviews with a teacher who spoke in a European accent: one in which he was warm and friendly, and one in which he was cold and distant. Depending on which version the subjects saw, they rated his specific appearance, mannerisms and accent as either appealing or irritating — even though they were the same in both interviews. Not only did their general perception alter their evaluation of these individual attributes, they were also unaware they were doing so — on the contrary: the subjects who saw the ‘cold’ teacher reported that it was their dislike of the attributes that had given them the overall negative impression.

As we divide people into those we generally like and those whom we dislike, we almost automatically switch on the prejudice filter. People who like the president-elect would happily gloss over the insulting talk, even if they would not necessarily agree with it, and those who dislike him would of course use the outrageous statements as further fuel for their disgust, and be blind to any policy proposals that perhaps they might even agree with.

Easy on the hats

But the selective blindness and the confirmation bias are not the only problem with the halo effect. By categorizing people as good or bad, in one case we may lose the ability to see the flaws in what they say, and in the other we may dismiss their argument without really considering the substance. What makes us so easily tag people with the “like” or “dislike” label?

A first reason to do so is whether they agree or disagree with us. It’s only natural to like people who share our preferences and to like less (or even dislike) those whose tastes are very different. A person who is a big fan of, say, popular country & western music, might be tempted to prejudge the opinions of an acquaintance who is an opera buff — any opinions, not just about music — as a bit snooty and snobbish. A reader of the Guardian or the New York Times, may find it pretty hard not to consider the opinions of a Daily Mail or New York Post reader as bigoted and uneducated.

It is harder still not to box people in on the basis of their beliefs as compared to ours. Someone who leans towards libertarian beliefs might find it’s easy to agree uncritically with writers, thinkers and politicians who share those beliefs, and to dismiss as simply wrong those who argue for a bigger role for the state, more regulation and more wealth redistribution. And vice versa for a person with more statist beliefs of course.

It may be a bit po-faced, but this tweet* reacting to the numerous reactions after British Prime Minister Theresa May referred to her ambition to deliver a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ illustrates the point:

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For people who dislike the prospect of the UK leaving the EU or who simply dislike the PM or her party, it is utterly natural to ridicule her statement. But that is of course not the only possible way of interpreting it.

The thing is that, by liberally handing out metaphorical white hats to the people we like and black hats to those we don’t, we severely distort our perception. If we don’t want to make it hard on ourselves to understand the world as it is, we should try to go easy on the hats.

Another frame

It may be very hard to resist that temptation — after all it’s what comes naturally: with food, with music, with politics — and with people: we judge them all in terms of whether (and how much) we like or dislike them. But we should try to not let that distort how we perceive what they say.

We should try to be equally critical of everything — regardless of who is the messenger. But we should be critical of the content and the logic of the message. And if we find it is not possible to consider it in a neutral frame, we should try to hear or see it from the opposite frame.

When we listen to what our favourite loathsome politician, economist, business leader or commentator says, just hold that knee from jerking. Let’s ask ourselves — what would it sound like if we actually liked this person?

(*: The account from which this was tweeted has since been deleted.)

Originally published at on December 9, 2016.

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Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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