Simon Parke: Mistaken mergers

27 February 2008

“DOCTOR, doctor! I keep making false assumptions about people. Do you know what is wrong?”

“Relax, Simon. It could be nothing worse than the halo effect.”

“The halo effect?”

“Yes — very common at this time of year.”

“You mean it’s weather-related?”

“No — BAFTA-related.”

I discover the “halo effect” to be a well-known psychological illness, which primarily damages the assessment glands; in its advanced stages, it can make fools of us all.

The illness comes into play when we allow one assessment of someone to bleed into another. For instance, we find a film star attractive and likeable. We then transfer these assessments to other specific traits they may have, and imagine them, for instance, to be intelligent as well (especially if they wear glasses for the interview).

Research into learning suggests that American students unknowingly make most of their assessments of data on whether they like the lecturer. Likeability is everything, as politicians know better than most. Warm and friendly does it, because, if they like your manner, they will love your ideas for the country — however mad. One assumption merges absurdly into another.

The halo effect has other uses. In his book Reputation Marketing (McGraw-Hill, 2002), Joe Marconi says that to have the words “Harvard Classics” on the front of a book means the publisher can demand twice the price of a similar book without this endorsement. Harvard’s reputation as a university bleeds into our assessment of the content of the book — and into the price.

The opposite of the halo effect is the “horns effect”, whereby we transfer negativity. This is why a man with a ginger beard could never lead a political party in the UK. How can a man with a ginger beard have a decent idea? In the moral and intellectual credibility stakes, a ginger beard against a clean-shaven smile is just no contest. We must hope the Messiah, on his return, presents himself appropriately.

I remember Rowan Atkinson, the comic performer, recounting the time he walked past two people he did not know; one said to the other: “I hate Rowan Atkinson.” They had never met, of course, but presumably he had seen him playing one of his comic roles. That was enough; another ridiculous bleeding.

The biggest beneficiaries of the halo effect are the saints themselves. They stand haloed in stained-glass windows, and feel the warmth of our unreserved admiration. Just like our favourite film stars, they are good to look at, likeable, and pretty smart cookies on every subject. If they said something, it must be true.

“Is there a cure for this, doctor? My assessment glands are a disgrace.”

“Disconnect your assumptions, Simon. It’s stating the bleeding obvious.”

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