Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

You Are Bad At Assessing People (But So Is Everybody Else)

We like to think we are objective, rational people when it comes time to hire a new employee, evaluate an existing member of your team, or form a new partnership. We are confident we can assess people based on their merits. But in reality, we easily succumb to a well-documented and much-researched cognitive bias known as “the halo effect.”

In 1920, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike published a study showing that employees, soldiers, teachers, and aviators all seemed oddly similar across a variety of seemingly unrelated attributes on performance reviews. For example, highly reliable workers were also rated as being highly intelligent. Unkempt soldiers were rated as being physically weak. Enthusiastic teachers were also prompt, and prompt teachers showed integrity.

Thorndike was skeptical, especially of the ratings of pilots who were routinely evaluated very highly in just about every category. The pilots were thus recommended for leadership roles despite being young and lacking in the sort of training a military leadership position requires. Thorndike realized that flying aces were great at doing something that was impressive, and it provided them with something he called a “halo of general merit.” The halo influenced commanders’ assessments and raised the ratings of all their other traits, including those that got them jobs they were not qualified to hold. He called it the halo effect.

The halo influenced commanders’ assessments and raised the ratings of all their other traits, including those that got them jobs they were not qualified to hold.

When contemplating something complex, your evaluation of one highly salient trait creates an invisible halo that taints how you perceive other unrelated and less-salient traits. For example, when scientists told subjects a photo attached to an essay was of the author (it wasn’t), subjects who saw attractive people in the photographs rated it as being better written than did people who saw a less attractive person in a photo attached to the same essay.

This is possibly why taller people make more money. One 2004 study showed that for every extra inch of height above normal a person earns on-average an extra $789 a year. This is also why candidates for president eat corndogs at state fairs. It makes them seem nice and approachable. A halo of niceness and approachability makes a person seem trustworthy enough to have access to nuclear launch codes.

The effect is not always positive. Researchers once asked two groups of students to watch two different interviews of the same professor who spoke with a Belgian accent (think Jean-Claude Van Damme). In one video, the professor pretended to be laid-back and aloof. In the other, he pretended to be mean and strict. About half of the students who believed the professor was easygoing also said his accent was endearing, yet among the group who believed he was a hard-ass about 80 percent said his accent was grating. Objectively, of course, the accent was neither good or bad, but the halo made it so.

This is possibly why taller people make more money.

If you find yourself rating a person, product, or company positively or negatively across the board on every characteristic and attribute, know that you are likely experiencing the halo effect. The important thing to remember about this phenomenon is that you can’t avoid its influence, but you can learn to recognize when you are under its spell and how to avoid its enchantment.

  • Notice when a single positive trait or credential makes a person seem desirable for a role in which that trait or credential would not improve your project. Individual attributes like attractiveness, height, recent successes, impressive former employers, and respected alma maters will skew your judgment, especially during first impressions. Make a list of what is not important and have a third party delete that information about a potential new hire, collaboration, or partnership before it reaches you.
  • Periodically destroy old halos. A powerful first impression, positive or negative, creates a halo that can survive for years. Look for consistency instead. Toss out your first impressions and periodically assess everything important as if it’s the first time you’ve judged it.

How about you?

Have impressive credentials or other traits caused you to make hiring or partnership decisions you later regretted because of the halo effect?

More insights on: Collaboration, Hiring

David McRaney

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David McRaney created the blog You Are Not So Smart where he writes about the psychology of self-delusion. He also hosts the podcast of the same name and is the author of the book based on the blog You Are Not So Smart and the sequel You Are Now Less Dumb, now available on Amazon.
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