In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a research study that shows the power of the halo effect. The halo effect is the phenomenon where positive traits in a person outshines the negative traits or characteristics of the individual, or cause us to project additional positive traits onto them. For example, think of your favorite celebrity. You know they are good looking, talented at whatever they do, and you most likely also ascribe a number of positive traits to them that you don’t really have evidence for. You probably believe they have the same political beliefs as you, that they probably pay their taxes and don’t litter. If you discovered they did one of these things, your brain would want to discredit that information, or you might face some cognitive dissonance as you square the negative characteristic with the fact that the person looks good and is talented.
The study Kahneman references shows the power of the halo effect by giving people 6 descriptions of a fictitious person. Some people were shown 3 positive characteristics followed by 3 negative traits. Another group of people were shown a different fictitious person, with the same 6 traits, but listed in reverse, with the negative traits first followed by the positive. Kahneman writes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.”
The study shows that first impressions matter a lot, even when we are not actually meeting someone in person. When the first thing we learn about a person is something positive, it can be easy to overlook negative traits that we discover later, and this is true in reverse. This idea is part of what drove Malcolm Gladwell to write his new book Talking to Strangers. I have not read Gladwell’s book, but I have listened to him talk about it on several podcasts. He discusses the death of Sandra Bland, and the interaction she had with law enforcement that led to her arrest and subsequent suicide. First impressions matter, and the first impression she made on the police officer who pulled her over was negative, shaping the entire interaction between Sandra and the officer, and ultimately causing her arrest. Gladwell would also argue, I believe, that first impressions can be formed before you have even met someone, simply by absorbing racial or other stereotypes.
Gladwell also discusses Bernie Madoff in his book. A savvy conman who relied on the halo effect to swindle millions. He charmed people and seemed successful, so people who trusted him with investments had trouble seeing through the lies. They wanted to believe the positive traits they first observed from him, and any hints of fraud were easily missed or ignored.
The best we can hope for is awareness of the halo effect, and remembering how much our very first impressions can matter. How we put ourselves forward can shape the interactions we have with others. But we can remember to give people a break, and give people second chances when our first impressions of them are not great. Remember to look beyond the first observed trait to see the whole picture of other people in your life, and try to set up situations so that you don’t judge people immediately on their appearance, and can look further to know and understand them a little better.