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:
- My Boss Is Driving Me Nuts
- When things go badly, many of us experience stress, and we might indulge various appetites in harmful
ways. Some of us say things like "My boss is driving me nuts," or "She made me so angry."
These explanations are rarely legitimate.
- 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.
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed
when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's
one way to get a clue.
- Missing the Obvious: II
- With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised
us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen?
- How to Get Overwhelmed
- Here's a field manual for those who want to get overwhelmed by all the work they have to do. If you're
already overwhelmed, it might explain how things got that way.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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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.