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Unconscious Bias Halo Effect

When you meet someone for the first time, it only takes a few seconds or less to figure somebody out and know exactly what s/he is like. Of course, this judgement is not accurate, even though it feels accurate, correct or true. It is just a shortcut that your brain wants you to take in order to group the people you meet into one of two categories. Friend or Foe.

Often one little thing you notice about that person sticks out so strongly that you judge the other person based on that small detail, rather than on a more expansive criteria. This can be a positive bias commonly referred to as the Halo Effect, or a negative bias commonly referred to as the Horns Effect.

The first time I noticed the Halo effect in my professional life was during an internship at a food production company. In the canteen, I overheard the HR Director telling a newly recruited marketing department employee: “You immediately impressed me, because I noticed your monogrammed shoes!”

On some level the HR Director created the equivalence of being good at self-marketing, by default means the new recruit would excel at marketing in general for the organisation. To my personal satisfaction, the guy was let go after a few weeks, because he turned out to be good at boasting about everything from his academic prowess, sporting accomplishments and much more, but not very good at producing anything of value for the organisation which had appointed him. Notice that my personal satisfaction also shows my own bias, as I thought he was incredibly ostentatious, just because his shoes were too showy in my opinion. Crazy huh?

Sticking with the topic of shoes and the inverse of the Halo effect, if we notice one thing in a person that we don’t like, we often judge the person, their skills and our expectations of them based on this one detail. This could be because they wear too much bling, have tattoos or speak with an accent we associate with negative traits.

When facilitating an Unconscious Bias event in the City of London for a financial services company, I asked the participants to name an absolute “no-no” when it came to meeting applicants during a job interview. One of the participants, a senior leader within the company stated “If a male applicant wears brown shoes, obviously!”. Seeing the incredulous faces of his fellow leaders and participants, he hurried to explain “People wearing brown shoes are weird. Am I the only who knows that?” From the responses of his fellow participants, Yes, he was the only person in the group who knew that.

When eight other participants lifted their feet to show that they were wearing brown shoes, he stated “**** me, I think I found a bias!” Yes, he found a personal bias. But as he had identified it, he could now do something about understanding the reason/s for it, and do something positive about it.

Any time we have the urge to say “It’s obvious that…” or “It’s plain to see that…”, we are probably exhibiting a bias because we are trying to generalise a small detail into a rule and by doing this we substitute rational thinking with gut feeling. Let’s be better than that.

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