Little Red Riding Hood was sent by her mother with a basket of food to visit her ailing grandmother.  Although her mother urged her to use a more frequented thoroughfare, Little Red Riding Hood took a short cut through the woods.   On the way, she met an evil wolf who was curious to know where the little girl was heading.  Although Little Red Riding Hood realised the wolf was dangerous and not to be trusted, she told him the truth about her intended destination.  The wolf saw an opportunity for a possible large feast so, he suggested the little girl might want to pick up some flowers to cheer her grandmother up.  Little Red Riding Hood thought it was a good idea and began to pick wildflowers from the ground of the woods.  That gave the wolf the chance to speed ahead to the grandmother’s house.  He entered the old lady’s home and devoured her completely, leaving himself enough time to dress up in the grandmother’s clothes and jump into bed to wait for the granddaughter to arrive.  Being a small child with little experience of life, Little Red Riding Hood was convinced the creature wearing her grandmother’s clothes and sleeping in her bed must therefore be her grandmother.  She then proceeded to gently quiz her grandmother about her unusual arms, ears, eyes and finally the sharp teeth, before the wolf revealed his real identity and began to chase the little girl around the house to devour her too.  If you have just arrived from Mars and never heard this story before, I will tell you how it ended at the end of this blog.

From a very young age, perhaps as young as 3 years of age, I started to form opinions and judgments on others based on my perception of what constitutes good, bad, palatable, disgusting, worthy, not so worthy and so on.  As I grew older, my discernment and perception became more sophisticated, to the extent that I was able to choose courses of action, friends, taste in music, literature, and art in general.  As the years went by, I learnt to rely on this accumulative knowledge, let’s call it instinct.  I also learnt new techniques such as data gathering, analysis, risk assessment, deduction, trial tests, and so on.  Combining instinct with acquired skills, improved my judgment of situations and allowed me to make better and more effective decisions.

The above is true of most humanity, but not all.  There are a few of us who not only exclusively rely on instinct, we tend to dismiss contradictory reality and facts even if such facts smack us in the face, preferring to rely on our outdated, ossified and limited instinct.

In psychology, there is a concept called ‘cognitive bias’, which argues that in certain circumstances, we deviate from normal behaviour when we allow ourselves to fall victims of such a bias, ignoring important input and evidence to arrive at a conclusion or judgment.  We are all likely to adopt cognitive bias behaviour because it helps us ‘cut through the crap’ and reach judgment quickly and efficiently.  The problem arises when we exclusively rely on this behaviour as the ‘only’ method of decision making.

One of the worst and most dangerous manifestations of cognitive bias is what is generally known as the ‘halo effect’, which works as follows: A self-made rich person must have an exceptional business judgment trait therefore, he/she must have an excellent judgment on all other aspects of life.  A good looking, well dressed and articulate person represents what we consider to be a good, healthy, knowledgeable individual who can be trusted to associate ourselves with and make favourable decisions towards them as in job interviews or promotion etc.  A person who is known to be law-abiding, god-fearing individual is seen as trustworthy, whom we find it difficult to believe that he/she cheated, stole or defrauded, even if we have evidence to prove otherwise.  In marketing, this phenomenon is relied upon to promote products and services.  If something is endorsed by a celebrity, it must be good, if it is worn by a very attractive and well-known movie star, it must be of high quality and taste, if a company proves to be successful in producing a universally admired product, then all subsequent products by that company must be just as good as the original one.

I suppose the flipside of the halo effect is the ‘horns effect’ where we perceive someone who is small in stature, quietly spoken, looks villainous, or has a track record of being aggressive or hard are ignored, avoided or dismissed out of hand. Again, this bias helps us short-circuit the process of decision making, especially when time does not allow us the luxury to reflect on all aspects of matters and just make safe assumptions to make decisions.  So, is the halo/horns effect a good or bad thing?

In most cases, when we turn a blind eye to obvious problems or potential problems, we may end up paying a heavy price for our erroneous assumptions.  We hire, fire, or promote the wrong people; we listen to the poor advice uttered by people we approve of and neglect the better advice from people we dislike or are not familiar with; we follow the example or model ourselves on people who project a positive but unrealistic image of perfection; and we jump on trendy bandwagons when such bandwagons are considered to be a ‘good thing’.  Test this on yourself but be brutally honest.  Are you more likely to listen to the advice of a millionaire or a tramp in the street?  When interviewing candidates, are you not likely to favour the tall, handsome, attractive, eloquent, or self-confident ahead of the shy, diffident or not so good looking?  Are you not more likely to laugh at a not-so-funny joke and badly told by the boss than a hilarious one told well by a junior team member?

What always surprised me is how prevalent the halo/horns effect is at the highest level in the commercial sector where analytical techniques and solid data are supposed to be relied upon to arrive at more reliable strategic decisions, but in actual fact, the halo/horns effect is used instead.

My personal experience of this phenomenon by being on occasions on different sides of the halo/horns effect, I unfairly benefited from the halo effect and struggled under the horns effect.  I simply took both on the chin and accepted them to be an occupational hazard.  I also witnessed people’s behaviour when they elevated individuals to undeserved positions of power and influence.  Beneficiaries of this cognitive bias were able to ‘get away with’ their destructive influence for a long time only to finally being found out as charlatans who caused substantial damage.  On the flipside, many ignored voices of wisdom and honest advice eventually gave up and moved on.  Occasionally, one of those wise/honest voices hung on a little longer than necessary or tolerable so, the powers that be resorted to their trusted method of avoiding confrontation by stabbing the individual in the back.  If this did not work, they employed passive-aggressive attitude and stabbed the subject in the front.

A final feature of the negative effects of the halo/horns syndrome and quite possibly most destructive, is when the situation evolves to the extent that the person who favours those with halos becomes his/her own subject.  In other words, he/she becomes self-obsessed, with feeling of superiority over all others and can only listen to his/her own advice and creates a group of sycophants who agree with everything he/she says.  Eventually, the whole edifice begins to crumble and finally crash and burn.  I have witnessed an extreme form of this behaviour which turned an entire organisation from being an early success to an abject failure, devoid of good, honest people who walked away in frustration and populated primarily by hangers on and talentless ‘yes men’.

To make sure that I don’t give a totally negative impression of these people, I decided to reflect further and look for some positive traits; I wouldn’t want you to think of me as a biased observer.  So, after a great deal of reflection, I came up with positive things to say about them.  Absolutely NOTHING!

Back to Little Red Riding Hood.  This is a 17th Century European fairy tale that has several versions in existence.  A more pleasant and happy-ending version was told by the famous German Brothers Grimm who end the story with a passing woodcutter who hears the girls screams, runs to her rescue and kills the evil wolf.  In another and less child-friendly version as told by the French author Charles Perrault, the evil wolf catches Little Red Riding Hood and eats her up.  Now, you choose which version you think is more likely.