Consider the kinds of things we see and hear on the campaign trail:
Vote for me because I have a square jaw, because I support the troops, because I’m tall, because I wear denim like you, because I wear a flag on my lapel, because I read rousing speeches and because I believe in God. I also stay in shape, I can recite the pledge of allegiance.
Notice that politicians are doing all kinds of things to show us that they are capable and likeable. Lost in this commotion is that none of them are showing us that they are well-informed people who know how to lead a country. They don’t know how to show us that they are good leaders–that would be an expensive signal in order to be reliable, and very few politicians could pass this Zahavian test. Instead, they are engaged in a beauty pageant, showing us a lot of things that might impress us and resonate with us, hoping that we assume that they are also good at governing. In their efforts to get elected, politicians are heavily relying on the “halo effect.”
In his excellent new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman describes the halo effect:
If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person–including things you have not observed–is known as the halo effect. The term has been in use in psychology for century, but it has not come into wide use in everyday language. This is a pity, because the halo effect is a good name for a common bias that plays a large role in shaping our view of people and situations. It is one of the ways the representation of the world that system one generates is simpler and more coherent than the real thing.
Here another descriptive passage from Kahneman’s book:
Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions. You are always ready to interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits–causes that you can readily match to effects. The halo effect discussed earlier contributes to coherence, because it inclines us to match our view of all the qualities of a person to our judgment of one attribute that is particularly significant. If we think a baseball pitcher is handsome and athletic, for example, we are likely to rate him better at throwing the ball to. Hellos can also be negative: if we think a players ugly, will probably underrate his athletic ability. The halo effect helps keep explanatory narratives simple and coherent by exaggerating the consistency of the valuations: good people do only good things and bad people are all bad. The statement “Hitler loved dogs and little children” a shocking no matter how many times you hear it, because any trace of kindness in someone so evil violates the expectations set up by the halo effect. Inconsistencies reduce the ease of our thoughts and the clarity of our feelings.
The halo effect is also “where favorable first impressions influence later judgments.” Therefore, the halo effect will reward a politician who was accomplished earlier in life, for instance, by being an actor, an athlete, or someone who ran the Olympics. If you served in the military, good for you–that will trigger the halo effect for many Americans. Or if you went AWOL from the National Guard, it’s probably still good for a lot of votes to remind folks that you were, once upon a time, in the National Guard. Military uniforms glow brightly for many Americans, whether or no you fought in a war that made any sense at all.
Here’s another reason to stay cognizant of the halo effect: Sometimes, smart people say stupid things. Sometimes, stupid people say smart things. They their past good efforts deserve some consideration, no one should be considered beyond criticism. No one at all.
Beware the halo effect.