The Halo Effect

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In the long run, I’ve found my minor in college – speech communication – as valuable as my major (mass communication.) While mass communication probes journalism, public relations and ethics in a generalized way, speech communication looks at the surface of human psychology: how people talk to each other. While we talked about underlying ideas  and how individuals express them, the focus was not on fixing illnesses as it is in the realm of psychology, but on simply interacting with the hoards of mostly sane people who just don’t share the ideas that we carry around in our own heads. While my favorite aspect of the field is the study of body language, other more basic lessons still come to mind.

For instance, lately, the halo effect has recaptured my interest. The halo effect is a perceptive condition that I would guess most Americans have. It is defined as using one trait a person has and using that single trait to assume that person has other traits – if the woman is pretty, she must also be virtuous. If the man is bearded, he must also hate bacon. The specifics of these attitudes can change over time, but the effect remains.  The way must of us see – and use – the halo effect is more of a good/bad thing in shifting relationships. Once a person pisses us off, we suddenly see everything that person does or says as bad. If we have enough of a crush on a person, everything that person does/says is good. In both cases we turn a blind eye to what that person may do that is outside of the perception halo we build around them. While we may consciously know that the person who makes us seethe with rage just saved 101 puppies, we will self-talk that concept back into the assigned halo: “Oh, he was just collecting them to make a coat, got caught, and tried to make it look good.”

As was pointed out in John Michael Greer’s excellent keynote at Paganicon, the US has become very binary in its thinking overall. Our complete inability to handle third parties in our political system is the larger sign of this, but when we look at the way we handle Republican versus Democratic debates, the problem also rears its ugly head. While back at the inception of the nation we cherished the skill of our statesmen and their ability to design compromises, we now see compromises as an example of failure instead of a sign of success. In our minds, it’s either/or, and not only is winning the only thing, victory is really only achieved if the other party is obliterated, cut off, disappeared. Our political parties have become adolescent in their application of party ideals, and even more sophomoric in their view of each other: if the person has one idea opposed, it’s all bad. If a person has one problem with you, it’s a problem with all of you.

On the rare occasions someone dares say “There are two sides to every story,” these days, the translation is usually “and I’ve already taken the side you’re not on.” It says enough that this person only considers the possibility of two sides.

The halo effect is part of why otherwise smart people stay in relationships with addicts, or why neighbors suddenly go to war with each other.  It’s why some men and women won’t hear a word against anything their mother does, even if he/she stands in the same room while Mama hurls every racial epithet she knows at his/her romantic partner. It’s why the specious non-debate of evolution versus Creationism is allowed to waste everyone’s time and play hell on an already inconsistent and messed up schools. ((There is no American public education system. School systems are handled on a state and local level, making at least 50, but ultimately thousands of completely different public school systems each with their own curriculum.))

The evil men do lives after them, and the good is oft interred with their bones.” – Shakespeare

This raises the question: how do you get out of the halo effect? More importantly, how do you get around it when someone else is in it? Why would you want to when the halo favors that person’s perception of you?

For most people, just being aware of the halo effect can help reduce if not eliminate its effect. I still have to call myself on it – I force myself to acknowledge when someone who rubs me the wrong way does something really well, or really positive. It takes practice, but nowadays I can even do it without the expression of appreciation coming out as grudging. Of course, since most people still live in the halo effect and people I don’t like tend to know I don’t like them (sincere, yes; discrete, mostly; hypocritical, only by accident) a sincere compliment often raises a lot of suspicion – after all,  I’ve got enough halos on me I could be a human ring toss.

Getting around another person’s halo projection – especially if that halo is on you – is another story. A halo comes from underlying attitudes, and short of resorting to some really manipulative stuff, attitudes can only be changed by their bearer. In many ways, attitudes are emotional passwords to a person’s inner life. Since most people have an underlying attitude that fits with a binary system, it’s really difficult to get around what they’ve chosen to project.  For some people, it’s downright impossible.

If you’re in a positive halo, there is a really good reason to want to break that halo: because the minute you do something to anger that person projecting on you, it will be bad. The thinking about you will go from all good, to all bad, with nary a rational reason to support it. Suddenly every good thing you do will either disappear in a perceptive poof of selective amnesia, or it will get twisted into the assumption of a manipulative attempt upon the other person even when demonstrated that your personal gain was in the act or expression itself and not in what you got from the other person. You always have the option of talking to the person, but that only works if you live in the positive halo. The negative halo seems to impact a person’s hearing, or at least his/her willingness to listen.

For me, this raises questions about ethics and magic. I’m Wiccan. Unless I have solid reason to believe I’m in life-threatening danger, I don’t do hardcore manipulative magic. Let me rephrase that: I don’t cast spells on people, I cast spells on situations. I have experimented with healing magic that surrounds a person, giving him/her the choice to tap that energy or not; it’s borderline, and I’ve seen only minimal evidence that it works.

Changing a person’s attitudes with magic is psychically dangerous. This isn’t just about the wobbly ethics; it’s about pure, pragmatic clean-up. You can’t really know the construction of a person’s inner life, you can only see and interact with the life presented when interacting with you. While you can certainly try to zip around in a person’s head, chances are you’ll knock over the psychic version of a table lamp and electrocute yourself or that person. If the person is stronger than you, you might take on some of that person’s qualities and never even realize it – and generally the qualities we pick up when we do stuff like crawl into another person’s brain pan are not so good. Like attracts like, after all, and what matches the baggage that prompts you to do something like that will be as ugly as battered plaid.

Your best bet for breaking another person’s halo on you is to claim the halo as part of yourself. How you do that is up to you. Personally, I like playing jump rope. Since the projection is on you, it is possible to accept it into you, and then to alter it gently from within yourself. It’s high risk work, but might be worthwhile if you feel that an authentic relationship with the projecting person is possible. Sadly, most of us don’t really want authenticity in our relationships – we want comfort, fulfilled expectations, and absolutely no challenges whatsoever. It’s part of why we stick out relationships that we know don’t quite make us happy.

It also helps on a mimicry level to look at where you send your halos, and pop them as you can. Look at the person you admire more than anything: you may not need to look for faults, just remind yourself that he, too, goes to the bathroom. Can you make a list of some cool things your coworker did – the one that makes the vein in your neck throb? While it’s unlikely that popping the halo will make a person you hate become likable to you, it will allow you a saner perspective, one that lets you look at what the person does instead of how you react to visual cues from within your own attitude programming.

The undoing of the halo effect on strangers is a more immediate exercise that can pay off. That guy in the convertible might NOT be a rich jerk. That police walking the beat may have never committed a single act of brutality. That person of x race very is probably not the guy that stole your mom’s purse, and could very well be opposed to such acts. Suddenly, you’re looking at people and what they’re actually doing, as opposed to what you reach into your inner bank and imagine. It’s a much less stressful way to think.