Halo Good Looking! Are You as Talented as I Think?

Have you heard of the “halo effect?” For those with teens, I’m not talking about the Xbox game your kids might be playing where they seek to destroy aliens. The halo effect can be more insidious than the game when it leads us to harmful decisions.

Let me describe the halo effect for you:

  • You meet a tall, broad shouldered man, the new boss, and instantly assume he’s a good leader.
  • You’re interviewing a former college athlete, someone who set records at your alma mater, and you think her training habits will translate into a successful business career.
  • You’re introduced to someone and learn they have the IQ of a genius, which leads you to believe he would be a great asset to your organization.

Do you get the picture? The halo effect leads us to make all kinds of assumptions about someone based on a few attributes that may have no bearing on the skills, abilities, or talents needed for the current role.

Tall men are looked upon as being better leaders. That’s part of the reason taller men usually win political elections.

Sure, we can think of exceptions, like Napoleon, but when we do we attribute their success to something like “the little man syndrome.” We assume they had to try harder because they were smaller and wanted to prove everybody wrong. Couldn’t they have simply had the right skills to lead?

Good looking people tend to get elected more, hired more, make more money and get lighter sentences when they commit crimes.

Like much of our thinking, we’re unaware of how our biases affect our decision making. After all, no one would say they voted for someone because of their looks, or paid them more money, or gave them a lighter sentence. But the statistics tell another story.

In the Bible there’s a story about how the Israelites clamored for a king and defaulted to someone who looked the part rather than someone who would have been a good king based on merit. In 1 Samuel 9:2 we read, “He (Kish) had a son whose name was Saul, a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people.” Saul ended up being a poor king and was replaced by David, someone who didn’t look the part but was the greatest Israelite king.

You might be thinking about all the athletes who’ve done well in careers after their competitive days are over. There are many examples but that’s partly due to the fact that we seldom hear about the failures or those who only do as well as the average person. When we do hear about the failures we just assume they were the exceptions and we would never be so foolish.

It’s often assumed the smartest people, those with the best grades and highest IQs, will do the best in life. In recent decades something called emotional intelligence (EQ) has challenged the notion that high IQs is what it takes. Studies show those with higher EQs do better than those with high IQs. Still, old habits and legends die hard.

Certainly tall people can be good leaders, athletes can take what they’ve learned through competition to succeed in business, and sometimes people with high IQs turn out to be wildly successful.

The point of this week’s post is to alert you to how many times irrelevant factors play a big role in our decision making process without us being aware. My advice would simply be this – question your assumptions. Perhaps you’ll find your initial impression was correct but you might also realize you’re being swayed by factors that have nothing to do with what you’re really trying to assess.

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