The Halo Effect and the Koch Brothers

I have a picture of a grandfatherly gentleman walking along a park path. He gently holds the hand of an angelic looking girl half his size. She is dressed in a fancy white dress; he has on his military uniform.  The picture is discordant; it arouses us. Something is wrong. That monster figure from the late 1930’s or early 1940’s surely could not be a doting grandfather, could he?

I will send you a copy of the picture if you e-mail me at nbrown2@bgsu.edu

I am writing this post in direct response to the previous one by Joe Seipel. After reading materials that demonize the Koch brothers, Joe seems to me to have done 2 things:

  1. Experienced the feeling and danger of the halo effect.
  2. Demonstrated the danger of conversion to a new perspective

I will explain, but there is no point in my doing so unless you read the previous post that Joe published.

 OK,  now I assume you have read Joe’s post. Reading a positive book about the Koch brothers causes him to feel negligent in his previous views that had created in him a detestation of the Koch brothers.  He says we should not allow our dislike of someone to stop us from seeing merit and learning from those we dislike. Yes, the danger of the Halo Effect is that we miss the pus seeping from the boils on the skin of those we admire AND we miss the admirable attributes of a Nazi ideologue.

But Joe, your conversion to what you see as a more balanced view of the Koch brothers is analogous to what Elizabeth Loftus explains in Eyewitness Testimony  when an eye witness is convinced by clever police strategists that he saw something quite different. Now the new illuminated, correct perspective of what he supposedly saw is anchored too tightly in his brain.  Now he has it right and tends to be immovable on the witness stand.

Let’s review the basis for my claim that Joe has gone overboard in his new view of the Kochs. In what follows I am going to assume that every claim that Joe makes about the Koch brothers is true. I doubt multiple of the claims, but it is the danger of changing ones mind and overdoing it in the process that is my concern here.

Joe learned from the book he read that:

  1. We should separate a person’s ideology from their other accomplishments. Hmm. toward what end are we doing this separation?  We can certainly mentally distinguish them.  We can even give them credit for them.  But now what? A person’s ideology when acted upon is hardly trumped or made less consequential just because the person in question had some “accomplishments.” A person’s ideology is the assumptive world in which he lives and the lamp post for his decisions. It is primary to his identity–incommensurable with “accomplishments.”
  2. The Koch Brothers are intelligent and savvy; they made a ton of money, turning millions into billions. I truly do not see the relevance of any of those claims to my assessment of the Koch Brothers. The most venal person ever born may well be intelligent and savvy. How is one harnessing these skills determines for me whether I applaud or sit on my hands. Many scoundrels make a lot of money. Many are clever and hard-working. 
  3. We should not dislike people with different worldviews. If we were to make a list of why we should dislike someone, I cannot think of any attribute that would be a more fitting candidate for the top of the list than “he holds a different worldview that causes misery for millions of people.”
  4. The Koch Brothers have created a comprehensive strategy for changing our society. Yep, they certainly have. And that strategy sends what message to those not in the 1%?  A message of compassion? Empathy? Interdependence? Brotherhood and sisterhood? In fact, can you name one religious form that shares the Koch brothers “comprehensive strategy”? 

Joe, you are absolutely right.  The halo effect regularly clouds our judgment. But after we feel that disappointment in ourselves when we realize we were not fair to someone, we have to be cautious that we do not over-compensate in the contrary direction when we assess behavior and people.

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