Superficiality and Its Perils

The ‘Halo Effect’ has many dangerous consequences.

Once upon a time — as all fairy tales begin — I met a young woman of remarkable beauty, with the kind of Barbie doll good looks one seldom sees in real life. When she walked into a room, heads turned, and she was not only beautiful — in a wholesome, all-American way — she also had the kind of poise and good manners that create a favorable impression. She was friendly and not the least stuck-up, the way some pretty girls are, and surely no one who had the pleasure to make her acquaintance would speak ill of her.

Circumstances led to a friendship and, after a while, she felt enough trust in me that she talked candidly about her personal problems. This was rather shocking because, while her wholesome appearance and manner had led me to imagine her to be as chaste as the new-fallen snow, she confessed that she had been terribly promiscuous as a teenager. Having been raised in a Christian home, she felt quite remorseful about her sinful past, but what struck me was the vast distance between her appearance and this reality. Had she not told me about her wayward adolescence, I never would have suspected such a thing, and I think no one else did, either.

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties. It was named by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to a person being perceived as having a halo. Subsequent researchers have studied it in relation to attractiveness and its bearing on the judicial and educational systems. The halo effect is a specific type of confirmation bias, wherein positive feelings in one area cause ambiguous or neutral traits to be viewed positively. Edward Thorndike originally coined the term referring only to people; however, its use has been greatly expanded especially in the area of brand marketing.

We fall prey to the halo effect all the time. David Brooks once infamously gushed that he judged Barack Obama fit to be president based on his perfectly creased pants. What Brooks saw in Obama was an outward persona which inspired confidence. I remarked on this factor in February 2009:

Even his harshest critics will credit Barack Obama for being a tremendous orator. Put him in front of a TelePrompter with a good text, and the man’s sonorous baritone works wonders. For this power, his speechwriters can claim no credit. He could read the ingredients from the side panel of a box of pancake batter (“…dextrose, partially hydrogenated soybean oil with mono- and diglycerides…“) and inspire standing ovations from an audience of adoring Democrats.

Some people just have these qualities naturally. Years ago, I was going through the drive-through at a fast-food place when I was struck by the deep resonant voice of the teenage boy taking my order. I’d had some experience working as a deejay, both in radio and nightclubs, and when I got to the pickup window, I told the kid, “You’ve got a voice for radio.” He laughed, but I told him I was serious. Because this happened to be the burger joint nearest my office, he was often at the drive-thru window taking my order, and I’d tell him each time what a great voice he had. When he went off to college, he majored in communication and actually became a radio announcer. Trust me, that kid was a natural, and the same was true of Obama — if he hadn’t gone into politics, he easily could have been a TV news anchor or a talk-show host.

Just because he had a great voice, however, doesn’t mean that Obama’s policies were wise, in the same way the Barbie-doll beauty’s gracious poise didn’t mean she was paragon of moral virtue. This is how the “halo effect” misleads us, and it works both ways. It is my misfortune to be homely in a way that strikes people either as clownish or sinister. My looks do not impress people, and my hyperkinetic manner makes me seem jumpy and unstable. Because of my various deficiencies, including a habit of sarcastic humor, I have difficulty convincing people that I actually know what I’m talking about.

Once people form a negative impression of you, it can be quite impossible to reverse that perception. They have formed their judgment, and nothing you do can change it. Your success will only compound their disdain. You’re a bad person, they’re convinced, and how dare you succeed without their approval?

President Trump has this problem. His mannerisms and bombastic way of speaking make it easy for his enemies to believe he is a villainous bully and/or an incompetent blunderer. During CPAC, I spoke to several of Trump’s conservative critics who are convinced he is doomed to failure, and that his presidency will do serious damage to the Republican Party. Yet he won the GOP nomination despite the opposition of his conservative critics, and defeated Hillary Clinton in a way that shocked many “expert” analysts.

What if the experts are still wrong about Trump? What if, despite every reason anyone might have to dislike or distrust him, Trump enacts policies that actually produce economic growth, domestic tranquility and improve America’s standing abroad? You may think this is impossible — how could a guy you dislike actually succeed as president? — in the same way I had trouble believing the graceful Barbie beauty could have been a total tramp.

The confirmation bias of the halo effect tends to make us think that superficially “nice” people are what they seem to be, but how many times have we seen TV interviews with the neighbors of a guy next door who seemed so decent and friendly, until he turned out to be a serial killer or mass murderer? True, many times the bad guy is rude and surly and disliked by everyone, but we are too often prone to judge a book by its cover, so that the smiling charmer can get away with misconduct which we never suspected.

Trump-haters are prepared to say “we told you so” if the president fails, and don’t seem to realize how badly they will be discredited if he succeeds. Personally, I distrust my own prejudice as to the fate of Trump’s presidency. Because I always enjoy seeing the “experts” with egg on their faces, I very much want Trump to prove all the naysayers wrong. On the other hand, my strong desire to see him succeed makes me ill-suited to evaluate the evidence as to whether he actually is succeeding. Trump is sui generis, a unique phenomenon without any precedent in American presidential politics, so that we cannot judge his success based on opinion polls (which were so wrong during the campaign) or on the “fake news” of liberal media reporting.

Only time will tell, in other words, and I have no crystal ball that enables to me to predict how Trump will fare in the future. For the sake of the country, we must hope that the president is so successful as to confound his critics, and give us that happily-ever-after ending every great fairy tale needs. Which was, by the way, how it ended for the Barbie beauty. She met a Christian man who did not hold her troubled youth against her, and they were soon married. If America can be that lucky, the Trump presidency will be a huge success.

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