Of babies and bathwater

The latest addition to the ‘Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables’ channel on YouTube is number 71, ‘The Snub-Nosed Tapir’: see https://youtu.be/lPczUNgKztE. I picked it for no better reason than that it’s Mrs Bunyard’s favourite, but it explains another psychological principle that’s had a good week. Many of us are familiar with the Halo Effect, whereby one salient good feature illogically enhances a person or object’s less positive properties, in the way that a pretty face or a good voice often lends weight to a celebrity’s unaccountable beliefs. The Reverse Halo Effect is, as the name implies, the process whereby a salient negative trait in an individual can cast a poor light on various wholly unconnected characteristics they possess. In the instance depicted in this Fable, a perfectly nice tapir’s short snout brings him alarmingly close to catastrophe.

The Reverse Halo Effect will be familiar to anyone working in opinion research. When I used to conduct experiments intended to make buying a car a less stressful experience, I was regularly struck by the fact that a customer who’d had one bad experience – perhaps they’d been kept waiting, or they hadn’t been offered a good enough deal – would mark literally everything down, so that they adjudged the décor, the staff uniforms and even the coffee less good than did the average customer. More recently, while testing out a new PSHE tool in schools, I found that the 10% or so of pupils who gave the activity a poor overall mark tended to give 0, 1 or 2 out of 10 for absolutely every individual aspect of it, which of course had a dramatic depressive effect on the high average marks yielded by the majority. When I raised this with a friendly market-researcher, he told me resignedly that it’s an all too familiar problem, and that his standard practice is to report data at face value but also to contrast the mean score with the median (you’ll need to look it up if you don’t know the difference) which tends to yield a more accurate picture of what the majority of the sample really thinks.

The Reverse Halo Effect was very much in evidence during this week’s presidential election, billed as the century’s greatest unpopularity contest. In politics, as in sport, a person’s credibility on all topics tends, for any individual voter, to be contingent on just one factor: the colour of the rosette he or she is wearing. This is true to the extent that, in tests, voters rate the same policy statements entirely differently according to whether they are pronounced by a member of ‘their’ party or the other lot – a phenomenon known as Cultural Cognition that forms the basis of the 39th Fable, ‘The Fastidious Mule’. There may have been additional sources of the Reverse Halo Effect in the case of these two candidates: reports of Donald Trump’s sexist indiscretions plainly deterred large numbers of women on a whole raft of attitudes; and, for others, simple possession of the name Clinton had a comparable effect in the opposite direction.

I suspect that the Reverse Halo Effect is simply evidence of what I call the ‘lazy mind’, but certain behavioural economists more generously call ‘frugality’. Since the brain is a prolific burner of calories, there’s survival value in not cogitating any more than one needs to in order to survive, but instead applying thinking-lite rules of thumb. Among many other such ‘heuristics’, it’s inclined to decide routinely that, if a person has one obvious thing wrong with them, he or she is more likely than not better avoided. This served us sufficiently well in our prehistoric past that we’ve inherited it from our forebears, but is a recipe for trouble in the modern world, where we’re invited to form yes/no judgements on immensely complex cultural, social, political and economic issues of which most of us know nothing like enough. Voters generally cope by reverting to their cognitive basics, the crude consequences of which are there to be seen in the headlines.

Most of us shrug our shoulders and accept that a personality/beauty contest in which there is merely an illusion of considered popular judgement is preferable to straight-forward tyranny. Yet it behoves us as individuals to watch out for the misconceptions encouraged in ourselves by the Reverse Halo Effect, as indeed by any heuristic. On the morning after the election, I received an acceptance of a dinner invitation from an old and respected friend who looked forward to seeing me “barring the outbreak of WW3”. Now, I’m no authority on American politics; but there was one thing amid the torrent of opprobrium poured beforehand on Trump by the British media that did make me think twice, and that was his stated foreign policy: an end to incessant American dabbling in world affairs, in favour of isolationism. This stated intention contrasts positively to my mind with the real-life record of Hillary Clinton who, as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, was hawkishly intent on bombing western values into the Islamic world, with today’s terrifying consequences. Not that I’m suddenly sanguine about the future: we’ve no idea yet what challenges will or won’t be thrown up by international politics; we don’t know whether Trump will stick to his resolve when confronted with them; nor do we know how he’ll behave under the ‘checks and balances’ on which the American political system used to pride itself. Whatever other ills Mr Trump might portend, however, I think it prudent to contemplate the Reverse Halo Effect before convincing ourselves that we’re all about to die.

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