A Natural History of the Modern Mind

Cognition, relationships, and evolution.

The Halo Effect in Overdrive

The halo effect, Michael Jackson, and mortality.

It has long been noted that people tend to view others holistically, that is, as all good or all bad. This is referred to as the "halo effect" because often it seems one characteristic (albeit positive or negative) seems to "outshine" others and bias our perception in the respective direction. We suppose it could be called the "devil's horns" or "pitchfork" effect, but the metaphor just isn't as pleasant.

We see these effects statistically when, after asking participants to rate a person on several seemingly unrelated dimensions, we find that there is high correlation, or a great deal of similarity, in the ratings across these different dimensions. For example, E. L. Thorndike first demonstrated the halo effect in the ‘20s after noting a high cross-correlation in military officers' ratings of their soldiers' physique, intelligence, leadership, and character. Others have replicated and extended these findings.

We have noticed a certain turning point in life--namely, death--when the halo seems to become resolute and elevated. That is, when people die, often our perception of them shifts, sometimes quite extremely, toward the wholly good end of the spectrum (prepare yourself, the "holy" and "halo" puns have only just begun). While it is not uncommon to talk about people as generally bad while they are alive, it is more rare for someone to speak ill of the deceased, even in a compartmentalized fashion. It seems that no matter how bad a person might have been in real life, the living find the one thing that might have made them marginally pleasant, no matter how bygone or inessential, and latch onto it in their glorification of the departed's existence. Hence, we are committing literary sin and mixing metaphors (don't worry, you won't blame us for it once we're dead), extending the "halo effect" to describe the phenomenon that occurs when people switch from assessing individuals as wholly bad while they're living to regaling them as holy saints once they've passed on (i.e., giving them a halo).

Michael Jackson, for example, since his death has been returned to his throne as the King of Pop and haled as the man who changed the way music videos were made by the mass media et al. It's no news that the contributions of his earlier years, however, were almost entirely overshadowed by the latter by allegations of child molestation and criticism of his increasingly eccentric lifestyle. It has been years since Michael Jackson was affectionately referred to as "The King of Pop" --instead he was taunted as "Wacko Jacko." Given the controversy that surrounded the icon leading up to his departure, there is perhaps an asymmetry between the vague samplings of his "troubled lows" and celebrations of his achievements. Let us be clear: We don't condemn or condone this post-mortem judgment, we just find it interesting, and we are left to wonder (in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque sort of way), why do we grant people a halo when they've died, even when we've proverbially burnt them at the stake for most of their lives? Don't we have just as much to learn from someone's mistakes as their gains?

Do we blame the media? Well no, because, first, we tend to adopt the view that media sells what people buy, and, second, we feel that the halo effect extends beyond the timely example of Michael Jackson and the public's portrayal of his life since death. Rather, it has been our observation that many people can relate to the discomfort that accompanies even the thought of uttering an ill-spoken word regarding the deceased, no matter how accurate the description might be. One might quip, "Well I don't say negative things about dead people because I don't want to be remembered that way by my loved ones." But if this karma-invoking explanation is in fact behind our faithful tellings of sainthood, then we should expect people to only speak positively of the living as well (because no one likes to be spoken ill of, period). But it just seems that isn't how things go... So why the switch? Why are we so comfortable gossiping and saying bad things about our contemporaries (only years ago, mass media tarnished MJ's reputation), but only until the point at which they are no longer extant (MJ is once again our darling)?

We propose that this halo effect-that is, the tendency to elevate our late friends to an especially virtuous status-reflects an ontological error of our ancestors that has pervasively finagled its way into a modern social norm. When one speaks the name of the dead, even the staunch atheist might catch him or herself uttering, "Rest in peace," and this seems especially the case if the accompanying communication is of any negative relevance - in other words, "Don't come back and haunt my ass in case you don't like what I'm about to say." It seems that just as people are predisposed to attribute agency to a supernatural being with omniscience (a.k.a. God), so do we attribute omniscience to departed mortals, even if we're uncertain they ascended into heaven (or perhaps especially if we're uncertain).

A mind that has evolved over millions of years for life in a Machiavellian social group possesses certain folk knowledge biases, such as reasoning about others' beliefs, desires, and intentions. Everyone knows that living things can hear, while nonliving things cannot. Thus, a mind free of evolved biases should avoid deprecating the living yet adopt no qualms regarding the deceased, reasoning that the living are more likely to hear about the bad things one says about them (perhaps only through the grape vine) than the dead. Alternatively, a mind evolved in an environment which advantages those who can predict effects from causes and infer others' intentions and goals is prone to err on the side of caution when reasoning about ambiguous entities (i.e., we don't know what it's like to be dead, therefore the minds of those dwelling in the "afterlife" are ambiguous). For example, when encountering a motionless animal, people often initially assume it might be sleeping, instead of assuming it is dead. Assuming that a large, motionless animal is dead when it is not can result in a case of the one-arms. We have proposed that "poking it with a stick" is likely a universal phenomenon driven by an evolved bias. Prior to the understanding that biological and psychological function ceases at death, people (our ancestors) who assumed there might still be some activity there were less likely to be eaten by a sleeping lion. It has been argued elsewhere that this bias toward intentional agency and causation is how we arrived at the notion of God. We extend that to say that this bias also might account for the halo effect as it applies to the dead ("the grateful dead" might not be so off-point if the dead could actually hear our praises).

While there are some exceptions to our rule, such as infamous and notorious characters like Hitler and Saddam Hussein, it seems that because we have a tendency to view people holistically, if a person had any glimmer of a halo while they were here, we revel in their glory once they become our dearly departed. So much so that were it called "the pitchfork effect," we would not be able to so rudely mix this metaphor. Perhaps that "history is kind" reflects something of human nature and our subjectivity - and not just the superstitious part. Perhaps it also reflects something of the human being - if there was anything in a person's life worth positive remark, it is likely to be extolled after their death.

Wonder what we'll say about Bernie Madoff...

Kayla Causey is a doctoral candidate studying developmental psychology at Florida Atlantic University, and Aaron Goetz is an evolutionary psychologist at California State University, more...

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