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The Hidden Power of “Obvious” Psychology

The Hidden Power of "Obvious" Psychology When people read about psychology, it often goes like this:

They click on an article about something like, say, the halo effect.

The halo effect is a mental bias we have, where our judgments of a person are clouded by one particular element.

For example, a new student shows up in class wearing stained clothing, and the teacher unconsciously assumes that the child is going to be a sloppy worker.  Or a good-looking woman goes on trial for murder, and the jury acquits her because they don’t believe such a nice lady would commit such a crime.

The article will go on about the halo effect, and how it affects us.

But at one time or another, all of us will read that and think something like:

“Duh, that’s obvious.  Of course people tend to be nicer to good-looking people – we all know that.  Heck, I figured that in the second grade.  Why do we even need this article?”

As I’ve roamed the internet, I’ve found that for many articles that label and describe psychological phenomena, there will be comments underneath singing the refrain:

“I already knew that.”

“Why is this important?  Everyone knows ____, it’s common sense.”

So let’s consider this for a moment – DOES it matter?

Does it matter that we label and talk about “the halo effect,” even if we already ‘know’ it and it seems obvious?

And I don’t just mean does it matter to self-proclaimed psychology geeks like myself.  Do these labels matter to everyone?  Do they matter in business?

I say they do.

And here’s why:

We’re bad at catching biases in ourselves.  We’re even bad at catching them in others.

Giving a label to something is the first step in identifying it wherever it crops up, particularly in complex situations.

Psychology professor Daniel Kahneman wrote:

“To be a good diagnostician, a physician needs to acquire a large set of labels for diseases,
each of which binds an idea of the illness and its symptoms…”

Why do we collectively call a spotty, itchy, contagious rash “the chicken pox”?  Because binding a set of symptoms with that label makes it easier to identify it quickly in the future.  An accurate diagnosis can tell you what’s causing the problem; it gives you a clearer path forward, because you know what’s likely to happen next.  So when a mom brings in a child starting to scratch and show spots, the doctor can say “Looks like chicken pox – let’s do X, Y, and Z right away.”

A clear label and diagnosis makes it easier to treat each individual case, because you already know the course of the illness, can identify possible treatments, and anticipate complications.

Kahneman argues that it’s the same for psychological phenomena:

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, for example, you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves.  The availability of a diagnostic label for this bias – the halo effect – makes it easier to anticipate, recognize, and understand.”

If you understand what the halo effect is, you can start to identify it in more and more situations.

This label can help you recognize and counteract it faster.

In business, the halo effect might apply because you know you are more susceptible to believing that what charismatic people say is true.  When choosing between two vendors, you might catch yourself leaning toward the one who was more captivating at the trade show – whether or not they are the right person for the job.  Understanding that the halo effect happens doesn’t prevent you from feeling its tug – but if you can recognize it and label it right away, you may be able to step back and look at the situation more objectively.

Understanding the halo effect might also help you react less emotionally to sour situations.  For example, a potential client might email you and say that their best friend “takes good pictures” and that they’re thinking of hiring them to photograph their wedding.  It might be tempting to snarl at your computer, vent about how willfully ignorant people are about photography, and feel generally devalued.  (We’ve all been there.)

Another way to look at it might be:

“Hmm, I wonder if the halo effect is at play here.  This person is seeing that their friend is taking some good pictures, and generalizing that ability to all picture-taking situations.  Maybe I could explain some special demands wedding photography creates, suggest that they do a dry run, and see what happens.”

That reaction might create a different outcome than if you simply blew them off as ignorant fools.  (Maybe.  At the very least, it might spare you from taking it personally, or solely attributing it to money when the real reasons may be more complex.)

Understanding the halo effect can help you handle marketing failures (“This campaign didn’t go well, but that doesn’t mean I’m bad at marketing or awful in business”), prevent bad client situations before they happen (“Yes, the client is a good person, but I’ll still be firm about asking them to sign a contract”), and more effectively manage all kinds of events.

The first step in being able to see how the halo effect affects you is learning the label and understanding its “symptoms.”

Which usually involves reading an article where the topic seems “obvious” to you.  Yep, one that makes you think “Sheesh, I KNOW this already.”

But you have to know the clear, textbook examples before you can apply it to real life.

While you might intuitively know that people are likely to be nicer to good-looking people, you might not recognize that the same psychological glitch plays into why people assume Uncle Bob can photograph their wedding.

Like learning anything, starting with simple examples can help you identify and extract them from more complex, emotional situations.

Just as a doctor can eventually look at a set of symptoms and determine no, this isn’t some mutant new disease, it’s just an unfortunate combination of pinkeye and the flu, understanding the basics of psychological effects can help you recognize them later, and be more calm and effective in business.

“No, this client isn’t freaking out about my prices because they’re too high, or threatening to hire their Uncle Bob because my work isn’t wonderful – I’m just dealing with price anchoring and the halo effect.” 

The ability to analyze, extract, and label these concepts can help you handle issues you might have missed otherwise.

Of course, neither medicine nor psychology offer perfect diagnostic systems.  There aren’t labels or explanations for everything, particularly in psychology.  But learning about them can still give you useful insight that can guide your actions.

So the next time you feel like you’re reading something “obvious” about psychology, my challenge for you is this:  Say to yourself –

Okay, THIS is obvious.  But biases remain biases precisely because they’re hard to see.  So: Where else might this show up in my life that it’s not obvious? 

The answer may help you a great deal.

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  1. Colleen on June 14, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    I can think of a few cases where I was able to apply some “obvious” psychology examples to client situations. Instead of automatically defaulting to “OMG what a special snowflake I am not even going to BOTHER with this noise!,” (my old, knee-jerk reaction) I took a step back and examined it for a more basic cause. Having a label allowed allowed me to handle them more objectively. Better experience for everyone all around!

    • Jenika on June 15, 2013 at 12:53 am

      Cool – thanks for sharing your experience with it. I’m glad this kind of thinking has helped … I know it does for me, too! And thanks for de-lurking BTW – sending a high five to Columbus all the way from Baltimore.

  2. Allison on June 14, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Hmm. Well, silly me didn’t know what the halo effect was. Those I recognize the symptoms, I didn’t know there was a name for it. I learned something today. 🙂

    • Jenika on June 15, 2013 at 12:54 am

      😀 woo-hoo! Most of us can intuitively understand most biases…..I hope the labels start to help, though. I know it helps me think more clear-headedly when dealing with people.

  3. Steve on June 15, 2013 at 2:46 am

    A fish doesn’t know it lives in water, either. maybe the obvious is obscured because it’s seamlessly familiar? I think i’ll put a pebble in my shoe for a week so i’ll remember i wear shoes all day. thanks for a gentle thought provocation.

  4. Drew on December 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    My recent fascination with the inhibiting and destructive power of Obvious has led me here. Specifically in regard to discussions of climate change, discussion with any person on either side will almost immediately turn to what obvious to those on either side. Science says … But anyone can clearly see …
    Each side is speaking about what is, must be, clearly true, but each side is sure the other is avoiding, denying or fabricating a response for some nefarious purposes.

    Once an idea reaches the level of Obvious in one’s mind, it is a conclusion–the end of discovery. And perhaps worse, it is the beginning of the search to embrace one’s bias in order to validate the point that does not have evidence to support it, while rejecting the evidence that negates the obviousness of the original conclusion, which of course, has always been obvious.
    This new realization of the paralyzing nature of this kind of “circular conclusion” is quickly becoming THE thing that keeps me up at night.

    Also, how close Obvious and Oblivious look in the English language. You see what I see, right? I mean, it’s clear as day!?

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