Preamble: We are often unaware of the many biases and prejudices that influence our social judgments. Psychologists call these the “bias blind spots.” I believe that we can overcome many of these subliminal biases by educating ourselves to be perceptive of them. This is the second in a series of articles on the common rating errors. See my earlier article on the recency bias.
Unconscious Judgments of an Investment Broker
A study conducted in year 2007, highlights two of the most common unconscious biases in social judgment. Prof. Emily Pronin of Princeton University showed study participants one of two pictures of the same man whom she introduced as an investment broker. One picture showed a suited man with a highly regarded Cornell degree and the other showed the man in casual clothing with a degree from a nondescript college. The professor asked her participants how much of a theoretical $1,000 they would invest with each. The participants rated the suited man as more competent. He got $535 on average without having his background checked. In contrast, the causal dresser got just $352. The participants did not consider the second broker as trustworthy and were more likely to have his credentials verified.
The Halo Effect
The “halo effect” is the concept by which a person who is judged positively on one aspect is automatically judged positively on several other aspects without much evidence. For instance, as a result of the halo effect,
- attractive people are often judged as competent and sociable. Film stars and other celebrities are assumed pleasant and sharp-witted,
- inexperienced interviewers tend to pay less attention to a candidate’s negative traits after discerning one or two positive traits in the first few minutes of a job interview,
- charismatic professionals tend to get noticed and move up the corporate ladder faster, irrespective of their technical and leadership skills,
- articulate speakers are likely to be more influential on their audiences even if their messages are poor in form and content.
Politicians, film and TV stars, sportspersons, celebrities and brand managers have learned to construct a halo effect and later capitalize on their perceptible reputations. Apple’s iPod generated positive impressions of other Apple products — the company capitalized on this halo effect and delivered excellent products in the iPhone and iPad. Renowned fashion designers can command higher price points even for ordinary clothes.
The Horns Effect
The “horns effect” or the “devil effect” is the concept by which a person who is judged negatively on one aspect is automatically judged negatively on several other aspects without much evidence. Clearly, this is the corollary to the halo effect.
- For years, American car manufacturers have battled the mistaken public perception that cars made by Japanese companies are of significantly better quality even if American car manufacturers use identical components from the same suppliers and assemble their cars using identical manufacturing processes. Even today, Japanese brand cars resell for much higher prices than American brand cars.
Call for Action
- Reflect on your decision-making process to steer clear of biases. As human beings, we are incessantly forming an opinion of people, objects, and events, both consciously and subconsciously. However, our judgment is rarely free of biases and our measures are not always comprehensive enough. Before reaching any important decision, be sure to collect all the relevant facts and reflect if your thought processes are free of the common biases.
- Understand that perception is reality and be conscious of the image you are projecting. People judge the proverbial book by its cover. Your friends and family, workplace and the society has a certain perception of who you are and what you can do, irrespective of the reality. As much as you would prefer to be evaluated based on who you actually are and what you can actually do, understand that your identity and prospects are based on the perception that other people have about you. Do everything you can to connect people’s perception to the reality. Look and play your role. Begin by reading the seminal article on the topic of personal branding, “The Brand Called You,” written by renowned management author, Tom Peters.