There’s a scene in the movie Moneyball that wonderfully captures one of the most important hidden influences that affects our judgment and decision-making. The Oakland As manager, Billy Beane, is presiding at a meeting in which his scouts are discussing prospects they like. The discussion is heavy on references to looks, such as “he has a strong jaw”—as if that has any correlation at all to the real question: can he produce runs? Another does not like a prospect because he has an ugly girlfriend; it tells him the player lacks confidence.
This bias is called the halo effect, and it has a powerful influence on the success of your persuasive efforts. The halo effect means that we have a tendency to let a judgment of a particular trait affect our judgment of other unrelated traits. For example, attractive individuals also tend to be perceived by others as more competent or likeable.
Because of the halo effect, we may perceive individuals differently depending on the situation, or may perceive the situation differently depending on the individual. For example, here are descriptions of two executives:
One was described as ”charismatic, bold and visionary.” The other was seen as “arrogant, imperial, and resistant to criticism.”
Who were they? “They” were the same person, Percy Barnevik. As the CEO of ABB, he was widely seen in the mid 1990s as one of the best business leaders in the world, when his company was turning in stellar performance. Several years later, the company ran into difficulties, and Barnevik’s traits were then seen in a totally different light. I suppose it’s possible that he had undergone a fundamental change in his personality during that time (maybe all the adulation went to his head). But it’s more likely that one obvious characteristic, company performance, fundamentally affected how others saw the less obvious traits.
The halo effect (and its less positive corollary, the horns effect) is why first impressions are so important. When you meet a customer for the first time, or during the first moments of a presentation, the impression they form will color their perception of any additional information they hear.
The halo effect is also reinforced by the primacy effect, which means that people are most likely to remember the first (and last; that’s the recency effect) item of information they receive. That means that they are more likely to remember their initial impression later when it comes time to make a decision.
Third, we’ve previously seen how the anchoring effect applies to numbers, when an initial number sets an anchor and affects our perception of subsequent numbers. For example, if you present two alternatives to a customer, present the more expensive one first if you want to make your preferred solution appear to be more reasonable. If anchoring can affect our perception of something as precise as a number, imagine what it can do to our perception of more ambiguous qualities, such as personality traits. Anchoring also applies to judgments about people. Here’s a simple demonstration from an experiment by Solomon Asch:
Most people would rate Alan more favorably than Ben, because the initial positive descriptors affect the perception of the others.
Finally, let’s not forget the sad fact that negatives make a stronger impression than positives.
How can you use this?
The first moments of any meeting, sales call or presentation are extremely critical and should not be left to chance. Three aspects of our first impression are particularly important: looks, likeability, and confidence.
Looks are important. There are scores of studies that demonstrate the unfair fact that attractive people hold a persuasive edge. In one study, subjects were given sample essays to read and were asked to judge the quality of the writing. The essays had been previously scored objectively by other readers. Two thirds of the readers received a copy of the essay with a photo of the “author” attached (said photos had been previously graded for attractiveness). You guessed it—the essays with more attractive authors were rated higher in quality.
While there’s only so much you can do about your physical appearance, you can do something about your grooming and your dress; you can make sure that your slides and written materials are clean and professional. Even your handshake can affect the outcome of your meeting.
Likeability is a personal trait that people make inferences about very quickly. You’ve no doubt had the experience of warming up to or being turned off by someone instantly, maybe without even knowing why. Rapport is one of the most important of Cialdini’s six persuasion principles; people are much more apt to listen to, and be persuaded by, someone they like.
The obvious things to do are to be yourself, smile, make eye contact, and use other people’s names. But, while we all know we need to do this, we may make it hard on ourselves by being too concerned about whether we make the deal, or by arriving late and having to spend our precious first impression time worriedly fiddling with the projector and getting everything ready.
Finally, confidence is both convincing and contagious. People will get a quick impression of how confident you are in yourself, your solution and your message. The best ways to communicate confidence are to be extremely well prepared, and to make sure you start off strong. And, if you have an ugly girlfriend, don’t show anyone her picture.