Halo Effect: You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Ravi isn’t very much liked by his manager. He is a very good developer with very strong work ethic. But Ravi cannot tolerate incompetency and never sugarcoats what comes out of his mouth. He is also a straight shooter, and never beats around the bush.

Within the first couple of months after he joined his company, he had a difference of opinion with a colleague which turned into a squabble later on. From then on, Ravi has unofficially been labelled as the disrupter of peace and harmony.

In fact, Ravi very well knows about this “special quality” of his. He is proud of it, and voluntarily admits not being a very good team player with incompetent members. He demands excellence from himself as well as from those around him  —  he mentions about these traits in his performance reviews as well.

This very nature got him bad reviews, and prevented him from getting promoted. His manager just can’t seem confident enough to promote him. “I know he is a good programmer, but somehow I always have second thoughts whenever I think about giving him a level up. A voice in my head keeps suggesting that maybe he doesn’t deserve it.”

Ravi’s job was going nowhere, so he quit. Surprisingly in the next job he is held as a rockstar. Before joining, he took his wife’s one advice, “Absolutely no fighting in the first 3 months! If somebody goofs up, take him to a corner and communicate, but don’t shout or lose your temper. If you think you can’t hold your anger, just write him an email and tell him what was wrong. Don’t express any personal emotions  — none!” Ravi followed this by heart. Anytime he was pissed off over someone, he simple wrote and email pointing out the faults and how they should be rectified — nothing beyond that.

This simple decision to restrain himself has done him a major favour in his new company. People started valuing his opinion and consult him for his advice. After the first three months he started with his usual habits of getting physically pissed off whenever there’s some silly mistake. But within a year he was promoted to lead a team of his own nonetheless — especially because of his high standards. His boss went as far as to say that this is the best hire of the company is the last couple of years. His colleagues love him too. “I want to work with Ravi. Guy has zero tolerance for errors. It’ll make me better at my job.”

This was the same Ravi in both he companies. What was so different in the second company though?

If you like your boss’s management style, you probably like his voice and his demeanour as well. If a kid is good in her class, you most likely think she’ll do well in sports and music as well.

The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person — including things you have not observed — is known as the Halo Effect.

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which our impressions of people influence how we feel and think about their character before truly getting to know them.

Halo effect is a common bias that plays a large role in shaping our view of people and situations. It is one of the ways your System 1 generates a world view that is simpler and more coherent than the actual thing.

This reminds me of a scene in the movie Moneyball where Billy Beane is presiding over a meeting in which his scouts are discussing prospects they like and dislike. There are comments such as “he has a strong jaw” — suggesting “he can produce runs.” Another scout doesn’t like a prospect because he has an ugly girlfriend; it tells him the player lacks confidence — which means “he can’t produce runs.”

Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Say, you meet a woman named Lisa at a conference. You find her personable and very easy to talk to. She is very amiable and you like her.

If I were to ask you if she could be asked to contribute to a charity? What do you know about Lisa’s generosity?

The correct answer is that you’ve no idea since you virtually know nothing about Lisa. There’s little reason to believe that people who are agreeable in social situations are also generous contributors to charities.

But you like Lisa, and you will retrieve the feeling of liking her when you think of her. You also like generosity and generous people. By association, you are now predisposed to believe that Lisa is generous.

And now that you believe she is generous, you probably like Lisa even more than you did earlier. You just added generosity to the list of her pleasant attributes.

Real evidence of generosity is missing in the story of Lisa, and the gap is filled by a guess that fits your emotional response to her. This is one case.

In other situations — like that in case of Ravi’s — evidence accumulates gradually and the interpretation is shaped by the emotion attached to the first impression.

I love thought experiments. Let’s do another one. There are two people: Alan and Ben, and they have the following qualities. Tell me what do you think of Alan and Ben?

Alan: Intelligent, Industrious, Impulsive, Critical, Stubborn, Envious

Ben: Envious, Stubborn, Critical, Impulsive, Industrious, Intelligent

If you are like most of us, you viewed Alan much more favourably than Ben. The initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later.

The stubbornness of an intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an envious and stubborn person makes him more dangerous.

Do you find similarities with Ravi’s case now?

In an enduring classic of psychology, Solomon Asch conducted this exact same experiment. The results were, well, predictable.

Over the time, there have been many variations of this research. Participants in one study first considered the first three adjectives that describe Alan; then they considered the last three, which belonged, they were told, to another person. When they had imagined the two individuals, the participants were asked if it was plausible for all six adjectives to describe the same person, and most of them thought it was impossible.

The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance, unless you game it. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.

Ravi’s wife understood the importance of first impressions, and she gamed the sequence.

Noel is my friend from college. Early on, he knew the importance of sequence very well, and he exploited it in essay writing exams. He didn’t like the History of Psychology class, so he read only bits from the syllabus that interested him, and didn’t even touch the rest. Yet he always managed to come up with good grades. He later explained how.

A professor usually grades papers in the conventional way. He picks up one test booklet at a time and reads all of that student’s essays in immediate succession, grading them as he goes. He would then compute the total and go on to the next student.

Noels mechanism of gaming the system was simple. He knew that if a professor has given a high score to the first essay, he is highly likely to give the student the benefit of doubt whenever he encountered a vague or ambiguous statement later on.

“Surely a student who has done so well on the first essay would not make a foolish mistake in the second one, right?” Noel would chuckle. “If a student has written two essays, one strong and one weak, he would always end up with different final grades depending on which essay the professor read first. The trick is always to write your best answers first, and wing the ones you don’t know.”

When there are two essays with equal wights in succession, you would assume the they actually have equal weights, but that was not true. The first one always has a much greater impact on the final grade than the second.

Daniel Kahneman faced this same dilemma when he was a young professor. “I eventually noticed that my evaluations of the essays in each booklet were strikingly homogeneous. I began to suspect that my grading exhibited a halo effect, and that the first question I scored had a disproportionate effect on the overall grade.”

The right procedure, according to Kahneman would be to read and score all the students’ answers to the first questions and then go to the next one. Thereby never reading the booklet in sequence.

“I made sure to write all the scores on the inside back page of the booklet so that I would not be biased (even unconsciously) when I read the second essay. Soon after switching to the new method, I made a disconcerting observation: my confidence in my grading was now much lower than it had been. The reason was that I frequently experienced a discomfort that was new to me.”

When Kahneman was disappointed with a student’s second essay and went to the back page of the booklet to enter a poor grade, he occasionally discovered that he had given a top grade to the same student’s first essay.

Naturally, there was a strong temptation to reduce the discrepancy by changing the grade that was yet to be written down. “It was somehow excruciatingly hard to follow this simple rule of never yielding to the temptation.”

My mother is a teacher and I know for a fact that following this simple rule isn’t as easy as it sounds. Grades for the essays of a single student would often vary over a considerable range. And this very lack of coherence would leave her uncertain and frustrated.

Kahneman observes: “I was now less happy with and less confident in my grades than I had been earlier, but I recognised that lack of confidence was a good sign, an indication that the new procedure was superior.”

A similar phenomenon can be seen in performance reviews. In Ravi’s first company, his year started with a quarrel, and that set the tone of his review. His later achievements couldn’t play a strong role to uplift his reviews.

In his second company, it was the opposite. Like Noel’s answers, Ravi’s initial months were very good. His later “arrogance” or “stubbornness” only elevated his persona.

Have you ever wondered what makes Sachin Tendulkar an expert in cars, or Roger Federer an expert in coffee machines? Advertising has found a strong ally in the halo effect. Just look at the number of celebrities smiling at us from TV ads, billboards, and magazines. You know they are experts in their field, but you don’t really have any evidence of them being experts in automobiles or coffee machines. Halo effect strikes again.

This is why books that have ‘Harvard Classics’ written on the front can demand twice the price of the exact same book without the Harvard endorsement. The same is true in the fashion industry. The addition of a well-known fashion designer’s name to a simple pair of jeans can inflate their price tremendously.

Occasionally, this effect has pleasant consequences — at least in the short term. Have you ever been head over heels in love? If so, you know how flawless a person can appear. Your partner seems to be the whole package: attractive, intelligent, likeable, and warm. Even when your friends might point out obvious failings, you see nothing but endearing quirks.

In the same way politicians use the halo effect to their advantage by trying to appear warm and friendly, while saying little of any substance. People tend to believe their policies are good, because the person appears good. It’s that simple.

To avoid falling prey, try going beyond face value while judging things, because the halo effect definitely obstructs your view of true characteristics. But it is not all so bad. The good thing about any cognitive error is that it’s present in all of us. So you can exploit it as well.

If you are somebody who is smart yet lazy, make sure you show your smartness in the first meeting with someone — be it a job interview or a date. And yes, a good physique or makeup definitely enhances your halo effect. Being well groomed and well dressed never hurts.

If you are a designer, and if users like one aspect of your app, they’re more likely to judge it favourably in the future. You should strongly focus on the first user experience. Conversely, if users have a particularly bad first experience, they’ll predict that your app will treat them poorly in the future as well and, thus, will be reluctant to return to the site.

Also, we like people who are like us. If you are going to pitch to a VC, try knowing things the firm values and include them in your presentation. This is not always possible, but surely try to get in touch with a portfolio company to get some information. This will definitely go a long way. Likeness enhances the halo.

If you are an investor, I recommend you to judge a company by something other than its easily obtainable quarterly figures. Dig deeper. Invest the time to do serious research. What emerges is not always pretty, but almost always educational.

And if you can’t do all that simply smile more. A smile projects kindness, empathy, and sympathy — all positive attributes. Studies have shown that when you smile, you produce a cause-effect phenomenon: The other person smiles too, and in turn likes you as well.

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