The Halo Effect, Polarization, and Modern Politics

There's a psychological concept known as the Halo Effect in which an object, person, or ideology (OPI) in which you find positive is assumed to have no negatives and an OPI in which you find negative is assumed to have no positives.  This effect can be illustrated through some very simple thought processes: 

  • I like Jill, she is nice. 
  • I think donating to charity is nice. 
  • Therefore, I assume that Jill donates to charity. 

This assumption is based on no outside information.  I have never spoken to the hypothetical character named Jill, but I have a predisposition to assume that Jill would be "the kind of person who would" donate to charity.  If we step back and think, we would realize the fallacy here, but until we actively engage in that thought processes, or until we receive information which contradicts this (e.g. "Jill is especially tight fisted with her finances"), we will operate on the assumption that Jill donates to charity as if it were a fact. 

This assumption of fact is more powerful than just the Halo Effect. When we receive information, we immediately categorize it into one of two different sets:  True and False.   When you read the following statements you intuitively know their trustworthiness: 

  • An iguana has three legs. 
  • The internal temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees. 
  • Malware among Apple users rose 114% in 2012 compared to 204% among Android users. 

Instantly after reading the first statement, you know that the statement is false.  It requires no thought, because you know there are no animals that have three legs.  Had I said "An iguana has two legs" you likely would have reached the same conclusion provided you knew what an iguana was, but it would have been (fractionally) more difficult. 

After reading the second statement, you (hopefully) came to the conclusion that the statement was false.  You did this either because you knew that I had no background in poultry, and therefore am not a trustworthy source; because I am a compulsive liar and you do not trust me; or because you actually know the answer to this question.  

However, what about the third statement? You know that I have a background in computers, you know that malware is on the rise among mobile devices, and you know that I am (hopefully) a trustworthy individual.  Chances are, you probably thought this statement was correct. 

Unfortunately, even though it was a lie, your brain would have registered it as true if there was no information to the contrary.  For example, if you are familiar with the mobile malware trends (outside knowledge), you might have dismissed this outright.  However, if you didn't dismiss it, your brain will treat it as a fact.  You simply cannot register information as being questionable. 

What does this mean for our political system?  Simple.  Polarization. A large majority of the American Population has no outside knowledge of politics.  What we know about politics we get from news agencies that, in this generation, put their spin on stories.  

When we listen to a news story about agriculture, we operate on the assumption that what we're hearing is a fact.  I know nothing about agriculture, so if News Agency One (NAO - a hypothetical company) tells me that the crop yield for corn in the south has fallen by 13% I am unable to treat this as anything but fact or fiction.  If I trust NAO (maybe they ran a story on the rise of Malware among Android Users in 2012 in which I agreed), I am going to make an intuitive, subconscious, and instant decisions to accept the corn yield story as being fact. 

I will operate as if this 13% were fact until I gain outside information from another source (News Agency Two (NAT) or agriculture experience) that I trust more.  If I trust NAT more than I trust NAO, and NAT suggests that corn yield has fallen by only 6%, then I will be more likely to accept the 6%.  If I trust NAT less, then I will reject the 6% figure outright. 

As a result, it's increasingly difficult to reach informed, unbiased positions with simple things (crop yield statistics), and almost impossible with complex issues. When news agencies lost their journalistic integrity, they helped set the stage for the polarization of the American public. 

I simply cannot trust anything that I hear on NAO.  I fact check everything that I hear from that news agency; and I do not give the same treatment to NAT.  In today's world, this is a huge time saver, as there is not enough time in the day to fact check everything that we hear.  Be honest, how many of you are going to fact check the accuracy of my depiction of the "halo effect" after having read this? 

However, while this type of information handling is extremely proficient, it does produce errors (for example, you will likely recall 13% if asked about crop yield losses), and can make intelligent conversation on political issues far more difficult.  So when it comes time to discuss a polarizing OPI, it becomes very difficult for people to form intelligent positions on the subject. 

Take, for instance, the recent Affordable Care Act (on any other large bill in the last decade) that was passed in the United States.  How many people have reached an unbiased decision in which they clearly outlined several pros and cons for the law? Not many.  Most of the rhetoric you hear on the subject is so laughably biased that it's difficult to take either side seriously. 

And yet we do; and we continue to vote them into office, and they continue to feed us the rhetoric to which we've become accustomed.