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 (low) ratings in one attribute tended to be correlated with high (low) 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.
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:
- You Remind Me of Helen Hunt
- At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt."
I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I
was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage
careers and even businesses.
- Inner Babble
- It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so
often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's
often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
- Working Journals
- Keeping a journal about your work can change how you work. You can record why you did what you did,
and why you didn't do what you didn't. You can record what you saw and what you only thought you saw.
And when you read the older entries, you can see patterns you might never have noticed any other way.
- Wishful Significance: I
- When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful
thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken
assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.
- Barriers to Accepting Truth: II
- When we work to resolve differences of opinion at work, we often depend on informing each other of what
we believe to be real facts. At times, to our surprise, our debate partners reject these offerings as
untrue, even when they're confirmed authoritatively. Why? And what can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.