The halo effect

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The halo effect is a cognitive bias first studied by Edward Thorndike in 1920 whereby the perception of one trait (i.e. a characteristic of a person or object) is influenced by the perception of another trait (or several traits) of that person or object. An example would be judging a good-looking person as more intelligent or believing a politician’s policies are good, just because the person appears good.

In the case of President Aquino and his high public satisfaction ratings, there seems to be a substantial amount of this effect taking place. The general impression of P-Noy is that he is honest. This comes from being who he is, the only son of two national heroes. This has translated into very positive sentiment towards the actions taken by the government under his watch.

Part of this has to do with the anti-GMA sentiment or the reverse halo effect. So pursuing cases against his predecessor is seen to be the legitimate thing to do, and rightly so, given the shenanigans that her administration was accused of. It also ties in with the president’s retraction and review of contracts and projects already approved for fear that they would somehow benefit her proxies within certain departments and sub-contracting firms.

But if you look at the outcome of these actions, it becomes immediately apparent, leaving our cognitive biases aside, that the positive evaluations given to P-Noy by the public are probably unjustified.

First of all, with respect to the way in which his justice department has gone after Mrs Arroyo, certain questionable legal manoeuvres have actually undermined the rule of law rather than upheld it. And secondly, with regards to the handling of the economy, the third quarter GDP figures clearly show that the overly cautious due diligence performed on public contracts undermined economic growth rather than encouraged it.

On the first point, I am referring to the use of a joint panel composed of the Department of Justice and the Commission on Elections that investigated allegations of vote rigging in the 2007 elections. This is said to have been anomalous in that a supposedly independent constitutional body such as the COMELEC is not meant to be seen as partial or collaborating with the administration in any way. Also, when their joint findings were published, it took a judge a few hours to read their eight ring-binder document and issue an indictment on Mrs Arroyo.

The undue haste with which such decisions were reached coming on the back of a temporary restraining order issued by the Supreme Court on the hold departure order issued by the DOJ on Mrs Arroyo that was “in effect” despite the dissenting opinion of some justices makes it highly likely that politics rather than due process was observed. This TRO was issued because the legality of the DOJ’s hold order was questionable to begin with.

Had these actions been undertaken by Mrs Arroyo while she was running the country, the protests from civil society regarding the “creeping authoritarian” nature of her government would have occupied public discourse. But because it was attempted by the meek and mild administration of the “benign one” there does not seem to be the same level of public indignation, although the result is the same—if upheld, it would grant vast powers to the state to curtail individual freedoms.

If we turn to the second point, on economic governance, the promised economic take-off billed as a public-private partnership by the president did not take place. Instead the economic deceleration has been rather remarkable in a region that is seeing quite robust growth despite the downturn in Europe and the US. The government which was prepared to take the credit for positive growth in agricultural output in the first half when early rains produced a bumper crop is now shifting the blame for poor production on storms both natural and man-made.

Public construction continued to show weakness despite the government’s promise to fast-track the roll-out of resources in response to the slump in the first half. Even with the announcement of a “stimulus” to deal with the effects of the EU debt crisis, there still appears to be little traction on this front. All hopes are pinned on the fourth quarter, but as the country’s chief statistician has pointed out, to attain even the lower end of the government’s modest growth target range for the full year, the economy would have to expand at a pace rarely seen.

In attributing the weak economic performance registered this year, there are certain factors that lie outside the government’s control (storms and financial crises overseas) which have to be acknowledged, but a portion of it definitely lies within its sphere of influence (public construction spending). It is clear that external factors did dampen growth, but the government’s action or inactions dampened it even further.

Again, had this occurred under Mrs Arroyo, the government would have been pummelled. Hounded by questions of legitimacy, it was her economic credentials that proved her only saving grace. Now that the government is run by someone whose electoral mandate is unquestioned, his now sullied economic credentials don’t seem to be much of a problem.

To counter the cognitive bias associated with the halo effect on the part of an evaluator, “blind-fold” tests or blind experiments are often administered where the person rates a product based on its actual attributes or performance, not on the subject’s perceived reputation. Respondents are often surprised with the results when they remove their blindfolds. I wonder what would happen if a poll was conducted that used the same principle in evaluating the performance of our presidents.

If faced only with the indicators of success and not the name of the person being rated, what marks would be given this president? What the government under him did this year countered its aims of fostering good government, rule of law and economic growth, but somehow its acts of commission and omission get glossed over and given a positive spin. Not only that, but the public by and large is willing to accept the message given them that all is well. So it seems the halo effect can cover a multitude of sins.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.