One of the best responses to the public dethroning of Tiger Woods is an article by Richard Shweder in a Psychology Today blog. He explains why we react with so much indignation to the revealing that a public figure has human flaws and does not live up to the god-like status we’ve thrust upon them.
Shweder defines “the halo effect” as “the expectation that someone’s greatest in one area generalizes to their greatness in all areas. “ But the phrase is not new. It was first coined by a psychologist, Edward Thorndike, in a 1920 study to describe the way that commanding officers rated their soldiers. Thorndike found that officers usually judged their men as being either good right across the board or bad. Few were seen as good in one respect but bad in another. It was all or nothing.
It’s clear we have a “generalization” problem.
I believe the revelations about Tiger Woods seem stunning, in substantial measure, because we have allowed ourselves to be sucker punched by the halo effect. Most tellingly, this is an opportunity to see through the illusion of generalized grandeur. Why in the world should we ever expect a Mozart or a Magic Johnson or a Tiger Woods – all of whom are genuine wizards of a sort – to also be supermen, or to be standard bearers for family values or civic virtues?
Of course some will argue that moral and family values are indicative of honesty and integrity across the board and can’t nor shouldn’t be separated from a person’s amazing talents and abilities. That was part of the argument for efforts to impeach Clinton. Many of the same people who praised his oratory and leadership skills could no longer reconcile that Clinton with the philandering Clinton.
Evidence of “the halo effect” can be found in every field and endeavor and proves the continuing power of first impressions.
In job searching, for example, people who “interview” well are often hired based on their strengths being overvalued and their weaknesses being ignored.
Car companies will put out a first model,the halo vehicle, in the expectation that its appealing features, will make other models in the range attractive to buyers.
In dating, we are hopelessly drawn to an very attractive person who “shows” well and are forgiving of the less attractive attributes even when they are signaled by a “red flag.”
We pay more for a pair of jeans with a designer’s name on them than the same pair with a generic label. We are drawn to a tutoring program or trust a pharmaceutical report if they are named Princeton, even though they have no affiliation with the historical university by the same name.
Even scarier, with all of our attention to political speeches, debates and town hall discussions, we vote based on some generalized grandeur about candidates based on their appearance, charisma, smooth oratory, choice of clothing or mates rather than anything they say or promise about the issues. (We like to pretend that what they say is spontaneous, rather than rehearsed and orchestrated.)
Could it be that in our eagerness to have heroes and gods that we are no more advanced than the ancient Greeks who without adequate knowledge of science thought that the sun rose because their kings commanded it to do so?
We not only expect our “heroes” to excel in their own areas of expertise, but we unrealistically look to them for examples of how we should live our personal lives. This is problematic not only because we see only a small aspect of their lives, but we only see what the media reveals to us.
It brings to mind the movie,”Wag the Dog,” where a spin doctor distracts the public from the President’s scandalous affairs by creating a fake war. This movie was created in 1997. Now, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and other social media, spinning is much easier, faster and now viral. Anyone with a computer and the mind to enter the spinning fray can do so with a tweet, email or blog post.
Since I never looked to Tiger, Michael Jackson, Clinton, O.J. or other public figures for clues on how to live my life and raise my family, I can admire their talents and congratulate their achievements separate from the personal lives they chose to live. As a matter of fact, how do we distinguish this hunger for details of celebrities’ sexual exploits from voyeurism?
The fact that we so ravenously consume the “falling from grace” celebrity stories that fill the tabloids, waves and coffee shop banter makes me wonder what parts of our lives are being neglected and diminished. Let’s face it. Our own feelings of inadequacy doom us to look to our celebrities for inspiration and live vicariously through them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we were so busy creating amazing lives for ourselves and helping others live amazing lives that these celebrity stories would only be a blip in the atmosphere, if at all? Or better yet, if we paid so little attention to these stories that the media decided they weren’t profitable enough to even run them?