Cognitive biases are psychological phenomena that distort our perceptions, memory, or judgment. When success depends on accurate perception, evaluation, or recollection of what's around us, distortions can lead to erroneous results that range from harmless to catastrophic.
The Halo Effect (or Halo Error) was first identified in 1920 by Edward Thorndike, who was studying how military officers evaluated their subordinates. [Thorndike 1920] He found that high ratings in one attribute tended to be correlated with high ratings in other seemingly unrelated attributes. But the effect is universal, extending beyond military performance evaluation. In modern experiments, for example, researchers have demonstrated that people tend to judge physically attractive people as possessing more socially desirable personality traits than do less physically attractive people. Thus, physical traits bias our assessment of personality traits.
In the context of performance reviews, researchers have demonstrated that when evaluators perceive in subordinates attributes that they regard as negative, those evaluators tend to assess more negatively the unrelated attributes of those subordinates. This effect is known as the Horn Effect.
The Halo Effect is pervasive. Here are three examples of how it can affect organizational decision making.
- Status affects persuasiveness
- Assessments of the validity of someone's assertions can be affected by our perception of her or his status. For instance, when supervisors attend meetings of their subordinates, their statements tend to have greater weight than they deserve. And when pariahs speak, listeners are more likely to discount what is said than when superstars deliver essentially the same message.
- The effects of status are wide-ranging. For instance, someone mentored by a high-status individual can acquire some of the elevated status of the mentor. See "Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications," Point Lookout for September 3, 2003, for more.
- Falsifying an argument falsifies the assertion
- When we assess the truth of an assertion, we examine the argument that justifies it. In the course of that examination, if we find a flaw in the argument, we sometimes conclude that the assertion is false. The assertion might indeed be false, but finding a flaw in a supposed proof of the assertion doesn't prove that the assertion is false.
- This error is a rhetorical fallacy known as argumentum ad logicam, the fallacy fallacy, or the fallacist's fallacy. It's a manifestation of the halo effect in the realm of logic.
- Hat hanging
- Hat hanging is a phenomenon identified by Virginia Satir, a pioneer family therapist. When pariahs speak, listeners are
more likely to discount what is
said than when superstars deliver
essentially the same messageThe name evokes the idea that we hang the hat of someone from our past on someone in our present. For example, life can be difficult for someone whose appearance matches the appearance of a film actor who often plays villains. It's a manifestation of the halo effect in the realm of personal identification.
- Hat hanging can occur in supervisor-subordinate pairs when age differences approximate parent-child age differences. See "You Remind Me of Helen Hunt," Point Lookout for June 6, 2001, for more.
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More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- Decision Making and the Straw Man
- In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options
to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates
use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use
is very common.
- Logically Illogical
- Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets
long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure.
Here are just a few.
- On Noticing
- What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there —
can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed
our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: II
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules.
And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's
Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
- Cognitive Biases and Influence: I
- The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive
biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
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