How I Exploited the “Halo Effect” Bias on LinkedIn
My most recent post on LinkedIn, “Karl Marx Was Right About Employee Engagement,” garnered enough views to become one of the day’s most talked about articles, and it scored even better in terms of the number of comments per view that it generated.
While I do believe that employee engagement is an important topic, the actual secret to this post’s popularity was obviously its headline. And if you take a look at the comments, it appears that many were from people who held the view that Karl Marx was obviously wrong about employee engagement because he was not right about anything at all, ever. He had to have been totally wrong-minded in absolutely all respects. He could not possibly have ever had even a single good idea.
So, right here on LinkedIn you have a see-it-for-yourself demonstration of the natural human decision-making bias that psychologists have referred to as the “halo effect” for a hundred years now. It refers to our tendency to justify our own opinions about issues, people, or decisions – anything that requires a qualitative assessment – by reinforcing those views in the way we assess related issues.
In Daniel Kahneman’s words (from his most recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow), “If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed—is known as the halo effect.”
So the truth is, my very popular LinkedIn post became popular not just because the topic was worth reading about, but also because its provocative headline violated people’s halo effect preconceptions about Karl Marx. If you read the comments you’ll see that many of those who were most offended by the headline apparently didn’t read much of the article itself. The second-to-last paragraph of the article, for instance, begins “So let’s all do our part to keep Karl Marx in the grave where he belongs…”
A few years ago a business school professor from Switzerland’s IMD wrote a book entitledThe Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers. In it, he argues that our preference to believe good things about the people or companies we already have good opinions of (or bad things about those we already have bad opinions of) goes a long way toward explaining the success of many business books by management “gurus” who claim to have discovered the one elusive secret to eternal profit and growth. Speaking of such business classics as Good to Great and In Search of Excellence, the author says, “For all their claims of scientific rigor, for all their lengthy descriptions of apparently solid and careful research, they operate mainly at the level of storytelling. They offer tales of inspiration that we find comforting and satisfying, but they’re based on shaky thinking.”
The halo effect bias is often harnessed by politicians, opinion leaders, and other people trying to sway public opinion pretty easily. James Taranto, a Wall Street Journal columnist whose opinions I generally agree with, for instance, nevertheless has a bad habit of always referring to Paul Krugman as a “former Enron advisor,” apparently as a mechanism for discounting absolutely everything Krugman has ever said or done.
If you want to tame your own tendency to engage in “halo effect” decision making, the first step is simply to be aware of it. Next try to step away, by mentally substituting some other name or issue (“would I feel the same way if someone else had said this?” or “would we make the same decision if some other vendor or partner were involved?”). And finally, you could do what Kahneman himself suggests and try to “decorrelate” the bias. That is, try to get a mix of opinions – pro and con – to ensure that equal numbers of positive and negative halo effect biases are included. (With respect to Karl Marx, of course, this might have proved difficult on the LinkedIn site.)
At this point I should probably clarify my own true point of view about Karl Marx, just in case you really were wondering: I think the idea of communism was an amateurish and unrealistic utopian fantasy that nevertheless empowered terribly evil people to justify immense crimes against humanity in the name of pursuing the greater good. Marx himself was an economic philosopher who just happened to catch a wave at a time when thinking, middle-class people were beginning to have doubts about the class differences thrown into stark relief by the Industrial Revolution.
Did Karl Marx ever have any good ideas at all? In my opinion he had at least one: Alienating your workers is bad, not just for the worker, but ultimately for the business as well. So as managers, we should try to ensure that our employees are engaged, not disengaged, in their roles.
And my apology for any offense I gave to the negative commenters, none was intended. I just thought the idea that Karl Marx was right about anything was interesting, precisely because it was counter-intuitive.