In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman introduces the concept of “exaggerated emotional coherence,” or what you’ve probably come to know as the “halo effect.”
The halo effect is “the tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person — including things you have not observed” — based on one trait or experience with them.
He gives an example of meeting someone at a party who is later asked for a donation. If you like her, you will likely rate her as more generous, and if you don’t, you will likely rate her as less generous.
Essentially, people tend to assess other people’s traits based on early emotional impressions rather than first assessing the traits and then forming an emotional impression.
So first impressions become especially important.
Kahneman asks: What do you think of Alan and Ben?
Alan is intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious.
Ben is envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, and intelligent.
It turns out most people rate Alan much more favorably than Ben, even though the traits are the same but listed in reverse order. In fact, the stubbornness of the person who is first viewed as intelligent sometimes evokes respect, Kahneman writes, while intelligence in an envious stubborn person is often thought to make him more dangerous.
The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person, despite often being by chance, increases the weight of first impressions.
So in a job interview, for example, you’d want to start by presenting your agreeableness, or likability. Then the hiring manager will likely rate your intelligence higher than another equally smart and qualified applicant who didn’t start by eliciting a positive emotion.
But in certain contexts where you need current knowledge to make that positive first impression, such as being up to date on what’s going on in the world, what should you do?
David Epstein, author of the popular book “The Sports Gene” and an editor of the new sports newsletter TipOff, says keeping up to date with important topics in the news is a great way to create a positive initial halo effect, whether you’re attempting to connect with your colleagues around the water cooler or trying to impress a first date.
“Like it or not, sports news makes for great small talk,” says Epstein, who is also a former Sports Illustrated writer. “And you only need to know a little to make an instant emotional connection with a sports fan. There’s a reason ‘How ’bout them Cowboys, or Cubs, or Dodgers?’ is a conversation starter as ubiquitous as talking about the weather. It’s a sliver of instant intimacy.”
If Kahneman is right, that might be all it takes to put the halo in place.
Jonathan Wai, PhD, is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at the Duke University Talent Identification Program.