The Halo Effect

This is the 13th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I am in Thailand as you read this, and no, I haven’t been deported by the Indian government for joking about our anthem and flag – things aren’t that bad yet. Instead, I’m vacationing, gathering up sea, sand and seafood. I knew I would enjoy the visit as soon as I saw Bangkok’s airport. Compared to Indian airports, it was a swank expanse of ease and luxury, and I immediately felt good about being here. 

On the other hand, when a foreign traveller comes in to Mumbai, as has been much written about, among the first things he is likely to see, from the air, are slums. The airport itself is shabby and disorganised, and delays and dysfunctional staff abound. And if he hasn’t organised transport in advance, he’d have to be lucky not to get ripped off. His first experiences of India are likely to be rather unpleasant.

Why should first impressions matter? Well, because of a cognitive bias called the Halo Effect. We tend to carry over impressions of one aspect of something to everything else about that thing. For example, if we get a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, and a friendly passerby helps us out, we are likely to think of him as a good sort, even if we are later told that he also happens to be a wife-beater. Our early bias affects the way we view him, and we are more likely to gloss over his other failings.

Similarly, if we have an unpleasant experience in an airport, the bad taste it leaves in our mouth is likely to impact the way we view that country. If the staff is rude and inefficient, and the toilets are dirty, that forms the prism through which we view the rest of the country. Indian airport staff, it is true, speak English better than Thai airport staff. But India makes a worse first impression by far.

Businesses understand the importance of the halo effect. Hotels make sure their front desks are efficient and their lobby area is inviting and comfortable. Manufacturers of consumer goods pay immense importance to packaging. Brand building itself, in fact, is about getting the halo effect to work for you. It is commonly surmised that the ultra-cool iPod has had a halo effect on other Apple products, making Windows users more open to buying them because they associate the hipness and ease of use of the iPod with other Apple offerings. In the automobile industry, a “halo vehicle” is the term used for a successful car brand whose sheen runs off on other cars by the same manufacturer.

The halo effect is not just about business and investment. A common context in which we see the halo effect involves celebrities. Celebrities generally have one extraordinary talent, which could range from being a good actor, sportsman, or just a regular Page 3 type with admirable cleavage. But this one ability casts a halo effect on the rest of their personalities, and our papers are full of celebs being asked for quotes on subjects on which they have no expertise whatsoever. Indeed, if not for the halo effect, I don’t see how celebrity endorsements would work. 

It also explains why so many actors take to politics and win elections, despite having just platitudes and dialogues from their films to offer. Speaking of politics, even a family name casts a halo. Rahul Gandhi’s sole achievement in politics so far is his last name, but already he is being spoken off as a future prime minister.

One celebrity who casts a massive halo is Amitabh Bachchan. He might be a good actor and an excellent showman, but the people of India treat him like a semi-God. And yet, this is a man who marries his would-be daughter-in-law to a tree because of her supposed manglikness. He hob-nobs with the likes of Amar Singh and the venal Mulayam Singh Yadav, who personify cynical votebank politics. Besides his professional skills, there is nothing to admire about him. 

The halo effect carries through to our personal lives as well. So many relationships are doomed because they are based on first impressions. You meet a witty man at a party, and your positive impression of him carries through to everything he does. You meet a beautiful woman, and assume that her character is quite as graceful as her bearing. Both of you ignore all evidence to the contrary, and boom, ten years later you’re fighting over the kids, who don’t see their daddy as witty or their mommy as graceful, but are doomed to make the same mistakes their parents made.

Sadly, there is nothing we can do about the halo effect – it is hardwired into us. But understanding its effects can help us be prudent in love and mindful of the impression we make on others. You may not be in a position to influence the government to refurbish its airports, or persuade the local political party to cancel their bandh because of the effect it has on investment, but you can certainly remember to dab on some cologne before you head out for that hot date, and comb your hair well. Use the lessons our government hasn’t learned!