Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Halo Effect: A Tripartite Analysis in Current Indian Politics

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics has written wonderful (and readable) book on psychology - Thinking, Fast and Slow that represents his "current understanding of judgment and decision making."


From the Chapter titled: A Machine for Jumping to Conclusions, the following passage:

Exaggerated Emotional Coherence (Halo Effect)
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 the things that you have not observed - is known as the halo effect. The term has been in use in psychology for a century, but it has not come into use in everyday language. This is a pity, because the halo effect is a good name for a common bias that plays a large role in shaping our view of people and situations. It is one of the ways the representation of the world that System 1 [operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control] generates is simpler and more coherent than the real thing.

This is a good enough introduction for now, which got me thinking on arguably the three biggest personalities in the current run up to 2014's general elections: Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, and Arvind Kejriwal. (While writing this I unwittingly put Modi's name down first even though I like him and his politics the least - maybe, it is the halo effect or, months of priming).

I am attempting to do an 'armchair analysis' of how swayed is an average supporter of each of these politicians by the above halo effect. Views and (confirmation) biases are of course, strictly my own.

Modi: In this case, the halo effect is the clearest. From citizens in India who have never been to Gujarat to NRIs who have never been to India, there is a wide spectrum of supporters. Development figures that have been mostly made up for the state of Gujarat are flaunted with impunity as the absolute truth while inconvenient numbers like, those on the human development ones fall by the wayside. Those who decry corruption and crony capitalism turn a blind eye to suspect dealings. Even if one ignores the appalling state of affairs with reference to 2002 riots and the subsequent actions including, encounter killings that have ensnared both Modi's ministers and top cops, there is very little data to support the great governance that Modi and his supporters tout.

So the big question is: do supporters like Modi's brand of politics (communalist, Hindutva/Sangh Parivar based) and consequently use that as an excuse to blindly believe the other lies and half truths or, do they like his style of governance, whatever that equates to, and are willing to turn a blind eye?

If you reference the above book passage it is clearly the former: an average supporter likes Modi for what he has done in 2002 and subsequently covers that narrative with stories of governance and development, irrespective of how weak or, untrue they are. 

Disclaimer: a lot of folks would claim and probably hold the other end of the argument i.e. governance (eg. good roads) trumps human rights, and they might be correct in their arguments and psychology but, here we are analyzing an average supporter.

Edit 3/13: This article points to the moral fallacy of the above disclaimer: growth trumping humanity.

That is why widely exaggerated claims of Gujarat's development and number of Modi's Social Media supporters are taken at face value because it follows a convenient narrative chain. That is why the cognitive dissonance of governance does not surface for such a supporter - how a 'strong leader' who is super-awesome in governance could not control riots in his own state and perpetrated by his own minister(s) that killed and displaced thousands? Either that person is bad in governance or, the word has selective meaning where human life of a certain kind (sic) is not valued.

Some commentators have already made more well-formed arguments on why people love Modi - the above is just a minor attempt to understand the possible psychology behind it.


Exaggerated Emotional Coherence (Halo Effect)
You meet a woman named Joan at a party and find her personable and easy to talk to. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to a charity. What do you know about Joan's generosity? The correct answer is that you know virtually nothing, because there is little reason to believe that people who are agreeable in social situations are also generous contributors to charities. But you like Joan and you will retrieve the feeling of liking her when you think of her. You also like generosity and generous people. By association, you are now predisposed to believe that Joan is generous. And now that you believe she is generous, you probably like Joan even better that you did earlier, because you have added generosity to her pleasant attributes.

Real evidence of generosity is missing in the story of Joan, and the gap is filled by a guess that fits one's emotional response to her. In other situations, evidence accumulates gradually and the interpretation is shaped by the emotion attached to the first impression.

Gandhi: Chances are that your first reaction on reading this surname was to think of either Rahul or, Sonia. Chances are lesser that you thought of Indira - unless of course, you lived through the Emergency years under her and/or consider her as the last mass leader. I will go out on a limb here and say you thought the least of 'the' Gandhi i.e. Father of our Nation.

In Rahul Gandhi's case the above example of Joan, cuts both ways. 

Those nominally and violently (social media types) against the 'Gandhi Family' will find associative data points on Rahul Gandhi's lack of interviewing skills, actions related to the ordinance for convicted politicians, equating Dalit empowerment with escape velocity, or even 'doing things' as this tumblr post suggests. Just like the fictional Joan above, all these negative associations lead opponents to the conclusion that Rahul Gandhi is unfit for public office, let alone for the highest one. As this post points out, some of this bashing is unfair in sharp contrast to what the 'haloed-one' i.e. Modi, spouts, which some commentators and majority of supporters consider as gold.

It should however be pointed out that Rahul Gandhi has not held a public office for us to sit on judgment on his performance or, as claimed vociferously to the point of hoarseness, non-performance. He has of course, been in charge of elections in UP and elsewhere with disastrous consequences that he has owned up but, surprisingly this lack of political achievement is not part of the popular failure narrative of Rahul Gandhi.

So, as Rahul Gandhi and Congress Party keeps committing errors and faux pas, these negative 'evidence' accumulates gradually in the minds of naysayers so that the final conclusion becomes that he and hence, the party itself is not fit for governance post 2014 elections.

But, if things are so black & white then why doesn't the Congress Party take corrective action? This is the halo effect that is blinding many of the party insiders and their increasingly outlandish bet is: so will the majority of voters in the country.

It is no secret that for a party that has governed India for most of its independent history, the current state has very few leaders of note and instead has its fair share of psychophants whose rise and power can solely be attributed to their closeness and loyalty to the family. As the noted historian, Ramchandra Guha notes here, "It was Mrs. Indira Gandhi who converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first brought in her son Sanjay and, after his death, his brother Rajiv." Therefore, from a party of tall, independent-minded leaders the Congress Party of today has mostly turned into one of 'yes-men' and power brokers.

Hence, in the eyes of these party and government functionaries the Gandhi name is paramount to their own survival and in fact, of the party itself. Hence, this 'halo effect' coupled with personal gratification keeps them in public awe of the 'leadership of Rahul ji'. Similarly, the effect that Indira Gandhi, and to a limited extent, Rajiv Gandhi had on the masses - the die hard, rural supporters link the Gandhi name to the Congress Party (naming a bunch of schemes on the famous surname have helped) and vice versa. Therefore, a party without a Gandhi patriarch/matriarch is a runt of the original. 

So whatever little chance Congress Party has of saving face in the general elections they feel they have to hitch their star with Rahul Gandhi or, if a miracle happens, with his sister- with the same famous halo in the surname and with much lesser negative association (except ironically, with a now infamous married surname).


Exaggerated Emotional Coherence (Halo Effect)
Real evidence of generosity is missing in the story of Joan, and the gap is filled by a guess that fits one's emotional response to her. In other situations, evidence accumulates gradually and the interpretation is shaped by the emotion attached to the first impression. In an enduring classic of psychology, Solomon Asch presented description of two people and asked for comments on their personality. What do you think of Alan and Ben*:

Alan: honest-intelligent-administrator-impulsive-stubborn-anarchist
Ben: anarchist-stubborn-impulsive-administrator-intelligent-honest

If you are like most of us, you viewed Alan much more favorably than Ben. The initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later. The stubbornness of intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an anarchist and stubborn person makes him more dangerous. The halo effect is also an example of suppressed ambiguity: like the word bank, the adjective stubborn is ambiguous and will be interpreted in way that makes it coherent with the context.

The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Seequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.

*I changed the adjectives to better fit the following subject

Kejriwal: Consider this situation. An eloquent and educated man in his early 40s is demonstrating to days on end at a public space demanding elected representatives to cede to his demand for public toilets because he thinks that is the right approach to the problem of urination in public places. Even on repeated assurances this person is being stubborn in insisting on his design of public toilets to be the only right one. When confronted, the person exhorts his few supporters of public toilets to civil disobedience. This is against the legitimate right of the people of the country who have elected their own representatives to choose the right design of public toilets on their behalf.

What if I then told you that this person is actually an intelligent person with an IIT degree and an ex-senior IAS officer? Having been fed up with the above shenanigans, will the weight of this person's past achievements give him public leeway to move forward with borderline anarchist activities? I would guess 'no'.

When Arvind Kejriwal captured the popular mindspace or, rather media space, with his India Against Corruption movement in 2011, few characteristics of his persona were known to the public.

However, what was known that he was an engineer [adjective: smart], an IITian [adjective: very smart] no less, an IAS officer [adjective: super smart, hard working], social worker [adjective: dedicated], Magsaysay award winner [adjective: good social work], one of the key campaigners for the 'Right to Information Act' [adjective: honest, public servant], and associated with a noted social worker, Anna Hazare [adjective: credible].

All the above adjectives, to a majority of casual observers, pointed to an honest, intelligent man who is dedicated to public service and rooting out corruption.

The stars were perfectly aligned to the rise of Arvind Kejriwal: a public fed up with instances of misgovernance by the ruling alliance, which synthesized into a single point agenda of corruption, finding a champion in an "honest, intelligent man who is dedicated to public service and rooting out corruption."

To an ardent supporter of the subsequent party of Arvind Kejriwal's, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the first impressions are all that matters in their version of the halo effect. In fact, one can argue that the subsequent 49-day Delhi state government of Arvind Kejriwal's has still yielded fewer data points for most to form an informed judgment on the person and the party. This rhetoric-based approach suits AAP just fine as the lasting memories they want people to hold in their respective 'Systems 1' is - of an upright man and movement that is being thwarted by the current political system, which only they can change.

Now, Arvind Kejriwal can safely claim he is an anarchist because the first impressions, leading to his popular haloed persona in certain circles (BJP supporters excepted) are firmly in place.

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Anonymous Romina said...

Saif - indeed a very well written blog/article!
Erudite observations linking political images/parties to the halo effect. Plus nice humour!

Look forward to reading your other posts - however discussions on posts only when we meet up :D

9:51 PM  

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