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:
- Give Me the Bad News First
- I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad
news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if
we get the bad news first.
- Workplace Myths: Motivating People
- Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally
believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some
of these myths and why do they persist?
- Snares at Work
- Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our
own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how
to deal with them.
- More Stuff and Nonsense
- Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture.
These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help.
Here are some examples.
- Missing the Obvious: I
- At times, when the unexpected occurs, we recognize with hindsight that the unexpected could have been
expected. How do we miss the obvious? What's happening when we do?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
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.