My Life and the Halo Effect

Whether an ‘angel’ or a ‘devil’ the Halo/Horns effect affects your mind without you knowing. Do you really want to make your decisions based upon prejudiced ‘gut feeling’? (Credit: laleahh33 CC BY 2.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains descriptions of murder and sexual violence.

Note: What follows is merely an opinion piece, the author is in no way a qualified mental health professional and if you are experiencing difficulties you should contact your local mental health service, especially if you’re feeling like Ted Bundy.

Not too long ago Netflix decided to make a movie about Ted Bundy.

Ted Bundy, in case you didn’t know, was a disgusting, abhorrent, sub-human piece of shit who liked to use people like cheap, supermarket meat and dispose of them, literally by killing them. Sometimes that wasn’t even the end of it. Not satisfied with having degraded a human being enough, Ted Bundy would rape corpses he had decapitated.

Ted Bundy was a murdering necrophiliac and rapist.

So no doubt this dude looks like shit? Right? Probably not obese, or he’d be too lazy to make the effort? Right? So he’s a husky chap. Someone like that mustn’t take care of themselves so he’d have long, scraggly, greasy hair, patchy stubble coming down to his neck. He’d probably have bad skin, because someone who does those sorts of things surely can’t be taking care of themselves. I mean, he must be one ugly motherfucker, right?

Those of you who know the story of Ted Bundy will understand the irony dripping from that last paragraph like the blood of so many of his victims.

Ted Bundy, for what it’s worth, was quite a handsome chap.

Charming, too, if some reports are to be believed. I mean, maybe he had a certain ‘something’ about him, something a little off, but it’s nothing a cheeky smile and a kind request couldn’t fix. Until he killed you.

A headshot of Ted Bundy from 1978, he was 31 years old. At this point he had already been in and out of courtrooms and prisons for around 3 years. From the Florida Photographic Collection (Public Domain)

Yet when someone commits abhorrent acts we assume they must be ugly in appearance. Consider whenever a heinous crime has been committed, how the news always seem to dig up the least respectable looking photograph of the accused. Not only must we imagine them to be ugly, but we must justify our imaginations.

Innocent or not people will point their fingers at the screen and say “He must’ve done it,” …for it is usually a man, “He looks like a paedo!”

The fact is it’s all bullshit. Your brain is lying to you. It is one of the fundamental ‘cognitive biases’ – tricks of thinking, if you will, based upon ‘heuristics’ – the brain’s equivalent of gut feeling, mental rules of thumb.

If we see someone and they are attractive, well then since they are good looking they must be good at other things.

This is known as ‘the Halo Effect’.

However, if we see someone and they are shabby, we assume they are just as shabby at everything else in life.

This is a reverse halo effect, sometimes called the ‘horns effect’ or ‘devil effect’.

Even one of the things I said earlier “…Probably not obese, or he’d be too lazy to make the effort?” was a deliberate use of this effect. I touch on the subject of weight discrimination in another article, Fat Versus Fiction but the same bias is in effect.

We judge people who are overweight as being less in control or less motivated, even though they may be incredibly disciplined and hard working. Because of a culture of negative stereotyping around larger people, we have come to pre-judge (the origin of our word prejudice) them as being a certain way without actually giving a fair assessment of them. Clothing, accents, hairstyle, facial hair, clothing brands, skin colour, cadence of speech – we judge it all in the length of time it takes for your brain to fire off a signal. Way before you get a chance to consciously make a decision.

A female shot-putter might be built like a brick shithouse with a healthy dose of added mass, but I can guarantee if you’re doing a 9-5 office job, she’s working more and harder than you could possibly even imagine. But you’d still judge her, because she doesn’t look like…I don’t know who’s considered attractive these days? Margot Robbie?

Current Olympic Champion shot putter Michelle Carter. Her listed weight on Wikipedia is 118kg or around 260 lbs (18 stone-ish) which, portly as I am, makes her heavier than me. At the same time, she has worked hard as fuck to throw a heavy ball a long way! She’s the best in the world at something. What are you best in the world at? Should she be judged for her appearance, or her achievements? Yet our biases would judge her by appearance anyway. (Credit: Erik van Leeuwen CC BY 3.0)

This two-way bias is one of the most dangerous things in the human mental arsenal because it can lead us to trusting people who shouldn’t be trusted, like with Ted Bundy. Or it can lead us to ignoring or looking over potential through prejudice like…well…check the title…me.

This is the thing, at this point pictures of me are available, there’s one for my WordPress bio. I ain’t a skinny chap, I don’t style my stubble, my hair has been untouched by a barber or hairdresser for 11 years – I will give myself some credit, I like to dress well – but otherwise people’ll take a look at me and say “There’s a lazy, good-for-nothing piece of shit.”

And that’s before we get to my track record! It doesn’t read well for a potential employer. I’ve held down one job for longer than 12 months and that was over a decade ago, I dropped out of my university studies twice, taking me four years to earn no degree and in the meantime instead of doing ‘meaningful’ stuff like volunteering with organisations thus demonstrating a capacity to take orders off of people in a heirarchical system, instead I’ve just been helping out my own family when they need help whilst independently learning about a complex and diverse range of subjects and developing skills in musical proficiency with multiple instruments and some, rudimentary, production techniques. You know, useless shit like that.

My resume, or Curriculum Vitae as we prefer to call it here in Britain (I dunno, we were Roman once, I suppose). If you look really hard you can my last job, over there, in the distance.
This is not just a shot of the Grand Canyon used for it’s natural beauty and also comic effect. Definitely not.
(Credit: Murray Foubister CC BY 2.0)

That doesn’t demonstrate aptitude for the workplace, that demonstrates individuality and the last thing you want in your workplace is an individual!

So I dress nice. Do you know what? That’s got me places. That gets me more smiles, more help when things go wrong. When you’re dressed well, speak in a nice accent, and politely ask for some money to make a phone call because your wallet has been lost, more people will oblige than if you’re in a grime-stained parka, with an unkempt beard, wrapped in a sleeping bag begging for a cup of tea.

Because of these biases we give to those who don’t need, we deprive those who do, we promote those who don’t deserve, abuse those who work the hardest and we cheat talent into people who look good enough for fame but deny fame to those with talent who don’t look the part. Remember when Susan Boyle was a massive deal? That’s only because, due to the Halo Effect, we’re be culturally trained to believe that ‘ugly’ people can’t sing!

That’s not to say the most attractive candidate isn’t the best for the job, or that the unkempt person isn’t just lazy and smelly – just that you’re not allowed to make those assumptions and you have to give everyone a fair shake.

“Ooh, but life’s not fair…” Some of you snivelling little social-darwinist pissants will cry.

Yeah, but if you try you can fucking make it a little bit more fair.  It is remarkable to me that we know and understand this cognitive phenomenon so much and yet we still do face-to-face interviews for job candidates. “Yeah but it’s to see how they gel with the team, herpderp…” It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter how well someone ‘gels with the team’ if they’re a fucking inefficiency. I’d take one arsehole upsetting the team if they all work better than one useless waste of employment who everyone loves but slows the whole thing down. You need to crunch the numbers, do the metrics, work it out. You’re the same people saying “Life’s not fair…” but apparently it’s supposed to be fair to all these people in this imaginary workplace employing a new fucking strawman!

NO! It’s a nonsense and it’s a nonsense that has significantly impacted me and so many others with ambition and aspiration but lacking in the looks, the nepotistic connections or the knowledge of where to even start.

This effect, this halo/horns effect, it will combine with the just-world theory, to make you think that people in lowly positions deserve to be there. Then what? Well then you don’t employ them, you don’t promote them, no matter how good they are.

So?

Well who do you promote? Someone who looks the part, comes from the right background but isn’t as effective?

“Well who do you promote? Someone who looks the part, comes from the right background but isn’t as effective?” Karl Anthony Mercer, 2021.
Photograph purely decorative, any association between the aforewritten words and the above man and/or his ability to run businesses or countries, is purely coincidental.
(Credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY 2.0)

That affects your bottom lines.

This bias affects the world’s bottom lines. From ignoring climate activists because you think they look like scruffy, pot-smoking hippies, to constant promotions for useless fools who look useful enough at the expense of people who should be given a fucking chance.

I shouldn’t have to dress nice for people to give me respect. I shouldn’t get judged as being an unkempt man for having long (and allow me to blow my own trumpet again, fucking luscious) hair. I shouldn’t need to ensure my facial hair is shaved to a certain standard, trimmed in the prescribed fashion of the time to be taken seriously.

Yet that’s how it is. It’s how our brains work. The only way to fight it is with conscious effort and, as I slowly trawl through articles describing how psychological effects affect me, you’ll learn. Most people barely make a conscious effort to do anything, least of all change.

Fancy finding out about another horrible psychological effect? You can read ‘My Life and Learned Helplessness’ here.

Note: Did you click this link because you were interested in the Halo Effect? Or because of the attractive woman in the lead image? Could you, perhaps, have been tempted to ignore the link thinking I had nothing to say about the Halo Effect that you didn’t already know, only to click for some reason anyway? Could that have been the Halo Effect in action? Did the attractive woman persuade you, perhaps unconsciously? Welcome to how hard it is to keep your biases in check!

Thanks to laleahh33 for unknowingly being part of my experiment! Here’s a photo of one of her cats looking like he has something important to say. (Credit: laleahh33 CC BY 2.0)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

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