Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Halo Effect

I've just finished reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Not exactly light summer reading, but still an engaging account of Dr. Kahneman's mental journey from wondering why humans are so bad at estimating the likelihood of events, to the development of some of the most important theories that explain human behavior. So important were these theories, in fact, that they won Dr. Kahneman a Nobel Prize, despite that it had never been awarded to a psychologist. As a psychologist, I was familiar with many of the principles explained in the book, but had never considered the cross-cutting value of them for marketing, law, medicine, public health, and beyond until I consumed them through his narrative.

What Kahneman does particularly well in this book is provide the research context under which his ideas developed. For example, he described the ideas and experiments put forth by his colleagues in psychology and economics departments around the world. One of those experiments was published by Richard Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson in 1977 at the University of Michigan (GO BLUE!) and is well known in psychology as the Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect has been around since 1920 when Thorndike coined the term, however until 1977 there was little empirical evidence to help us understand the effect. Simply, the Halo Effect describes how global evaluations of something influence our evaluations of specific attributes of that thing. So like good psychological scientists, Nisbett and Wilson sought to understand whether people are aware of Halo Effect when it is happening to them and the potential implications.

To do this, they recruited 118 undergraduate students. Half of the students saw a video-interview of a professor who presented himself as "as a likable teacher, respectful of his students' intelligence and motives, flexible in his approach to teaching, and enthusiastic about his subject matter." The other half of the participants saw a video-interview of the same professor who presented himself as, "quite unlikable, cold and distrustful toward his students, rigid and doctrinaire in his teaching style." After viewing the videotaped interview, the subjects rated the instructor's likability, as well as the attractiveness of his physical appearance, his mannerisms, and his accent from "extremely irritating" to "extremely appealing." In order to explore the question of subject awareness, some subjects were then asked whether the instructor's likability had affected their ratings of his appearance, mannerisms, and accent. Finally, participants were asked whether their rating of the professor on likeability influenced their ratings on his appearance, mannerisms, and accent.

They found that 70% of participants who saw the "warm and likeable" interview rated the professor's physical attractiveness as "appealing," while 70% of participants who saw the "cold and uninviting" interview rated the professors physical attractiveness as "irritating." A similar pattern was observed for ratings if his mannerisms, such that if he was warm and likeable, his mannerisms were perceived as appealing, while if he was cold, his mannerisms were irritating. This reminds me of the rose-colored glasses we wear when falling in love. Of course, it's endearing when someone you are falling for has cute little quirks, like saying "supposably," even though it drives your friends and family nuts. Even more interesting was that the professor in the interview had a thick, French accent. Participants who saw the video of the "warm" professor were equally likely to say the accent was appealing vs irritating, while participants who viewed the "cold" interview almost exclusively found the accent irritating. Important to note is that each of these attributes, physical attractiveness, mannerisms, and accent, were the same in both videos, what varied was the global impression of the individual as warm vs cold.

They also found that the Halo Effect depended upon a lack of awareness. Most people in the study reported that their global impression of the professor did not influence their ratings of his attributes, despite that it overwhelmingly did. This is good news though. The practical application of this important work is the knowledge that we will make global evaluations of others, and they will make them of us. The direct application of these findings to daily life are that if we are warm and friendly, people will find us more attractive and less irritating. So be warm and friendly, or at least try to be. The indirect application would be to recognize your global evaluations of people and things in the world, and practice interfering with your brain's tendency to spread those evaluations to other attributes incorrectly. For example, you can dislike a person, but they can still be good at their job.

At the center of Daniel Kahneman's work is the discrepancy between how economists believe rational people "should" behave, and how humans actually behave. The Halo Effect is alive and well in all of us, costs most of us a great deal of money, and likely prevents us from fostering relationships with great people in favor of not-so-great people.

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.

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