The Halo Effect: How We Get Trapped into False Beliefs

From best-selling business books to false prophets, if IT looks too “good” to be true … it is!

What is the Halo Effect?

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which our initial or superficial impressions of a person, product, or story will determine our feelings and beliefs about everything associated with it.

From best-selling business books to crafty politicians and motivational speakers, we’re continually seduced by the halo’s false promise of easy solutions to complex problems. This doesn’t have to be you!

The Halo Effect was first identified by U.S. psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920. It describes how our beliefs are readily based on superficial impressions.

That’s why advertisers pay famous actors to promote products; we think positively about the product because the actor played a hero or is incredibly good-looking.

However, the halo effect can also work in reverse. If you’ve heard negative rumours or gossip about a person, you may judge anything he says with suspicion. Before long, confirmation bias will create an indelible … but false belief.

A great example of a negative Halo Effect was told by Joe Rogan in his opening remarks in a Spotify podcast interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr., in June of 2023. He said:

When I had heard of you in the past, before I read your book and before I’d met you, I had no information on you, but there was this narrative that you were anti-vax, that you believed in pseudoscience, and you were kind of loony. I took it at face value because that’s what everybody said.

Why Are We Susceptible to the Halo Effect?

Humans dislike uncertainty of any kind. We like explanations, and the simpler and shorter, the better. In addition to simple answers, we like good stories, and good stories always have a hero: the super politician, the all-knowing and wise guru, the superstar CEO.

We like to believe that the world is fair, that the “good” will succeed and prevail … and if we can just get ourselves to wake up at 4:30 am, start a mission board, or think positive thoughts — as our revered guru suggests — then we too shall prevail.

Self-Help Gurus, Pseudoscience, and the Halo Effect

We have an enduring love for stories, and there is nothing wrong with that, but they become particularly problematic when disguised as science.

Endless “scientific” papers appear to have stood the test of rigorous examination, but on closer inspection, they’re often nothing more than a persuasive assembly of force-fitted facts, or what is more commonly called pseudoscience, of which the general public seems to have an insatiable appetite — primarily when delivered by people “wearing” halos such as famous actors, authors, gurus, and motivational speakers.

In a commencement address given at Caltech in 1974, physicist Richard Feynman described fallacious beliefs as “Cargo Cult Science.” Here’s how he framed it in that address:

In the South Seas, there is a cult of people. During the war, they saw airplanes land with lots of wonderful goods, and they wanted the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land.

They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So, I call these things Cargo Cult Science because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential because the planes don’t land.

Our modern and highly “educated” society is just as susceptible as the people on that island when it comes to looking for simple explanations for complex issues.

Dress a spokesperson in a lab coat holding a clipboard and have him spout nonsense about losing 20 pounds in 30 days by ingesting his “secret” formula, and people will frequently swallow the story hook, line, and sinker.

But this pseudoscience isn’t limited to bogus weight-loss claims, energy bracelets and the law of attraction. The world of business literature is also rife with Cargo Cult Science authors claiming their explanations to be science-based when they’re often nothing more than several cherry-picked incidents strung together to support a predetermined conclusion.

The Halo Effect and the Delusion of Best-Selling Business Books

As Phil Rosenzweig points out in The Halo Effect: . . . and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers, the world of business literature is an endless stream of best-selling authors promising to disclose the secret to stupendous business success by suggesting that any company can simply choose to be great by following a few key steps that will inevitably lead to the same glorious results as the companies they write about.

That is the principal flaw in the research of Jim Collins’s Good to Great, Collins and Porras’s Built to Last, and many other studies going back to Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence.

They claim to have identified the drivers of company performance, but they have mainly shown the way that high performers are described.

According to Nobel Laureate Danial Kahneman:

The basic message of Built to Last and similar books is that good managerial practices can be identified and that good practices will be rewarded with good results. However, both messages are overstated.

Stories of how businesses rise and fall strike a chord with readers by offering what the human mind needs: a simple message of triumph and failure that identifies clear causes and ignores the determinative power of luck and the inevitability of regression.

These stories induce and maintain an illusion of understanding, imparting lessons of little enduring value to readers who are all too eager to believe them.

Superstitious beliefs have “successfully” explained the unknown for eons. They calm the mind and soothe its fears with simplified stories that promise a known and better future.

And as long as the public has a burning desire for another good story and the simple secret to success, there will be an endless stream of authors and motivational speakers (and they are legion) only too happy to cook up a batch of remedies, stories and superstitious drivel that make as much sense as wearing a pair of coconut headsets on a tropical island.

How Can We Avoid Succumbing to the Halo Effect?

Ask the question: is it possible for every company management team to simply tick off the five, seven or nine steps to success as outlined in the myriad of bestsellers, and by doing so, they will magically enjoy spectacular success?

Can every one of us enjoy stupendous success by waking up at 4:30 a.m., starting a vision board and summoning the Law of Attraction?

If simple remedies were all that was required, then critical thinking wouldn’t be all that necessary. But the world is neither simple nor predictable. It’s a complex and rapidly changing environment that demands thoughtful, critical, and continual analysis.

However, if you remain vigilant about the ubiquitous effects of the halo effect, you will increase your powers of critical thinking by an order of magnitude.