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5 mins

How The Halo Effect Makes You Biased

Learn how the halo effect skews your view—and how to beat it to make better decisions.
by Rosie Allabarton | Jul 18 2019

Think about the last time you made a decision about a person you barely knew, whether romantic, professional, political, or simply in passing. What made you think you did or did not like that person, or that they were or were not worth hiring or voting for? Now, think about why you made that decision. What was the hard evidence that supported your choice? If you’re like most of us, you probably didn’t have any. You just got a feeling. But what was behind that feeling?

While we’d probably all like to think we don’t let any underlying prejudices influence us, Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect shows that a lot of our daily lives run on subtle assumptions that we don’t always realize we’re making. Rosenzweig explains why our brains often take the easiest route to a conclusion, and how we can put a stop to biased thinking for good if we want to achieve a more accurate and fair world view. If you have just a minute, check out the video above for a fun, speedy explanation of how the halo effect works. If you have a few more minutes to spare, you can check out the key insights from this title on Blinkist.

But first, a definition of bias

Before we go any further into investigating the muddy sources of our assumptions, it’s important to clarify the meaning of bias. The definition of bias is simply a personal preference for something we value, and a preference against something which we don’t value.

Taking this a little further, a cognitive bias is an umbrella term for a number of different systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.

Confirmation bias, which comes under the umbrella of cognitive bias, is when we tend to assume ambiguous information based upon the concrete information available to us. It’s this confirmation bias that leads many of us to, albeit unwittingly, experience the halo effect.

Human brains love confirmation bias

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig looks at the phenomenon of confirmation bias, and how our brains respond to conflicting or contrasting pieces of information. What the author finds is that rather than try to make sense of two seemingly opposing pieces of information, humans favor confirmation bias; when the information they choose to believe in confirms previously held beliefs or biases. The reason we do this, Rosenzweig states, is because subconsciously we are trying to avoid a mental state called cognitive dissonance, which is when the brain must house two inconsistent thoughts or beliefs about the same thing at the same time. Put simply, our brains just don’t like doing this and seek consistency instead.

“Cognitive dissonance is a mental state characterized by inconsistent thoughts or beliefs.”
Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect

However, to find the consistency we crave we often blend features together. This is known as the halo effect. For example, you might meet someone and think: “John seems happy therefore he is also successful.” But although you may deduce from the evidence around you that John is happy, you are making an assumption based on that happiness that John is also successful. As the example demonstrates, this kind of feature blending or halo effect leads to false assessments about the world around us. Essentially, assuming ambiguous information based upon the concrete information available leads to inaccurate results.

How do we avoid the halo effect and indulging our confirmation bias?

The halo effect may seem like an abstract concept, but in reality we all suffer from this mental quirk in our personal and professional lives, with often negative consequences. Perhaps we meet someone who appears well-dressed and attractive. From this we might conclude that they are an intelligent and capable person. That’s because it’s an easy assumption to make, and does not involve any cognitive dissonance. We are unlikely to assume that a person who is well-dressed and attractive has an extremely chaotic or troubled life, because this thought does not quite match what we have physically observed about the person so far. However, it is just as likely to be true. How can we therefore avoid making such quick judgments and avoid letting one trait affect how we view the whole person?

“Rigorous research is needed to avoid cognitive biases.”
Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect

Consider the variables

One solution to avoiding the halo effect is to ensure that during any research phase or ‘getting to know you’ phase, you always use independent variables. If you are curious to know if your children’s high school teacher is performing well, then it would be worth analyzing her classroom interaction with the children, her enthusiasm for the job, her ability to make difficult concepts understandable, the results of her classes’ exams, and her ability to work well in a team with other teachers. It would be crucial not to confuse the results of one of these variables with the results of another. She may be very enthusiastic about teaching, but that does not mean the children find it easy to learn under her guidance.

Don’t confuse correlation and causation

Another easy mistake to avoid is confusing the difference between correlation and causation. For example, the new supermarket manager is an upbeat person and the supermarket is making record numbers of sales. Is having a jolly supermarket manager increasing the sales in the store, or is the record number of sales making the supermarket manager cheerful? Without much more research, we can’t assume that one is the cause and the other the effect: we simply don’t know.

Don’t oversimplify with single explanations

For all of us, we need to be aware that offering a single explanation for a particular result is often too simplistic. It may be easier for our brain to process that there is just one reason why the high street store is outperforming all the other businesses on the street, but, as Rosenzweig makes clear, in reality there is usually a variety of different reasons and a heavy sprinkling of luck involved. In our personal lives the same holds true: we need to look a little bit deeper at why certain things are happening, not just accept the first (and usually most obvious) explanation for it.

“It’s very difficult for us to analyze more than one feature of a person or object at once, and we therefore tend to blend features together.”
Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect

Now that you know more about the halo effect, we hope you’ll be able to recognize it in your own thoughts and behavior to enable more accurate judgments of the world around you. Using our easy steps you should find it easy to start avoiding making quick judgments or blending features and instead adopt a more analytical and rational approach to life’s experiences. If you’d like to find out more about this cognitive phenomenon, simply head over to Blinkist to read the full book-in-blinks to The Halo Effect now.


To discover more in this series, check out:

Of Two Minds: How to Get Better at Decision-Making by Thinking Fast and Slow

How to Set Your Mind to Growing a Growth Mindset

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