TIRBO #27: The halo effect

An important cognitive bias in medicine, and how the COVID pandemic has shown us that generalizing the assumption of competence is a treacherous pitfall.

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4 thoughts on “TIRBO #27: The halo effect”

  1. Thanks for covering this cognitive bias/effect. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert. Just a reader posting thoughts.

    As you briefly mentioned, the hallmark of mindfulness is when a person can recognize this bias in others, and in themselves. There are certain signs of this that I look for in expert statements, paraphrased as follows:

    “This is not my area of expertise…”

    “This is the part where I am less certain…”

    “The way that my theory/conclusion would be falsified would be if _X_ evidence were to be found. I welcome the community watch for this result, and put it to the test.”

    “I am cautious to add any reactionary ad-hoc explanation when my theory/conclusion seems to run into contradictory evidence…I simply don’t know yet why the contradiction has occurred.”

    Did I miss any?

    In other words, it begs the question for both the angel and the potential “worshippers” ascribing the halo effect:

    As one becomes regarded more and more as an expert, is there a certain responsibility to guard against others placing an infallible halo over their statements?

    Should expertise and cognitive authority be attributed more to those in the process of excavation, digging a hole in a continual search for the bedrock, or to those building a mountain to stand on? On which of these do we build paradigms and direction for practice? (Hint: What is the end result of removing false “material” from each scenario?)

    1. Definitely some deep insights here, David. It’s hard to deny that in the modern age, we instinctively want to follow oracle figures who have all the answers, while charismatic or intelligent individuals want to fill that role (perhaps because it’s what the public demands). If you’re able to attract attention to your ideas, is it responsible to actively reject such labeling? Probably! And I know that I instinctively have great trust for educators, clinicians, and researchers who express a baseline degree of doubt in their certainty of what’s true or best. (This is not the same as being racked with doubt about decision-making, as a crucial skill in medicine is obviously being willing to make decisions despite a lack of certainty.)

      It helps to build pre-defined structure around our truth-seeking, such as the concrete frameworks of a systematic literature review or Delphi consensus process. And yet, we are bored by such things and still gravitate to the oracles. It’s probably our responsibility as listeners to stop buzzing towards the brightest light, just as much as it’s a responsibility of our icons to stop acting like prophets.

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