Halo Effect: The tendency for an impression created in one area to influence the opinion in another area

The other day, I was partaking in one of my regular ass-kicking workouts online, and something started to nag at me. It was more than the noise of my muscles seemingly screaming out loud. It prompted me to do my own sort of “experiment” with each subsequent class and unique instructor I chose. Because I travel regularly, I always love to experiment with various HIIT classes and instructors who put workouts together online, a great, fast way to get an in-hotel-room type workout. Through that variety, I noticed I had become oddly intrigued with the dialogue of these engaging personalities on my screen, motivating me to keep pushing through. What hit me was how many times I was told the following, in various forms and fashions, some quite directly:

  • I can do anything I want to do.
  • If I put my mind to something, I can overcome adversity.
  • I matter.

If you think about it, these messages aren’t unique to the fitness industry and, heck, many of you reading this article may not be sold that these types of comments are something we should be wary of—-for they are seemingly contributory to many people’s successes documented all over the media and throughout history. Perseverance has a considerable role to play in achievement. Nonetheless, the grounds are a bit shaky if we take this stuff without understanding nuance first. For they seem to have a meta-communicative facet to them too: if I feel something a certain way, it must be listened to in a never-be-wrong prescriptive way. Either validate me if it is something I want to achieve or reject it if it is a feeling that gets in the way of my goal. All three statements above can be moved around in a way that makes the self ‘right’ without having to do much work beyond always deciding first what one’s goal is.

What throws the monkey wrench into our systems of motivation, without us knowing it, is the asymmetric tilt inherent in our motivational systems towards self-justifying decisions over those that deny the self’s initial position when a sort of rightness in us is involved. In other words, while we may see the benefits of the comments I wrote above when overriding a decision to take the easy way out and shut down the body’s efforts during a challenging workout, we would like to think we can do the same courageous, successful thing with calling BS on something we decide as “true” when it isn’t (or not as true as what is going to help us breakthrough in a certain realm).

But that is usually not the case.

This non-one-to-one relationship of sorts screws with us. The strength of memories for the times when it “works for us” carries visceral, tangible feedback loops that reward and reinforce us (for example, sticking with the workout in its entirety lights up many internal factors, from pride to biochemical boosts to sensory pleasures to actual outcomes we desire); which, therefore, can then infiltrate insidiously into other occasions where this generalization of sorts usurps any wisdom of discernment needed to say no to this type of “just do it” mentality at all costs.

But even if you think you are a critical thinker, a person who pauses to consider all options, and one who engages with contrarian ideas flawlessly, I am here to say that I am most concerned with the actual saying of these types of statements in our lives than whether or not they are objectively true. Just like a humble man doesn’t talk about his humility (it would ironically undo the premise of what he is saying), these types of self-protective conversations—even if in some ways they have truth inside which is prudent to use on occasion—make the vulnerability to the rightness-of-self trap all the more prevalent and arguably more dangerous in life.

Of course, we all do this to varying extents. Still, the inflation of self, in my opinion, isn’t modulated by reducing the occasions of the above, just like an addict isn’t necessarily not one when they are not using the problematic substance. The sobriety of consciousness is a first- to second-order change of reality itself, not just the doing/not doing of the behavior. It is more inherent, more like the water we swim in or the air we breathe, unnoticeable, and simply a ‘there” of where we are at any moment in time.

What do I mean?

If you ask people in various settings, contexts, and so on whether they are above-average, 60-70 percent or more—regardless of the thing being measured—reliably will state themselves in this category. The problem with this is statistically, only 50 percent should lie to the right of the average or median. If we look at specific research in specific areas and break them out a bit more, this averaged inflation becomes even more apparent:

  • 65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence
  • 84% of Frenchman believe they are above-average lovers
  • 93% of folks in the United States consider themselves above-average drivers
  • 87% of MBA students at Stanford viewed their academic performance as above the median

(Source:  https://productiveclub.com/overconfidence-bias/)

So what’s so bad about this? I believe the error is not so much in this brain bias for a particular assessment of a trait or behavior, but in what the brain learns and does with it over time. Even when someone points out the apparent invalidity of the argument, it is treated merely as an isolated “oops” or just a quirky, curious observation. That is, the generalization effect of what these inflations do to us is NOT seen or realized entirely, and even if so, not down into the hearts of us where all TRUE, lasting conversions originate. And before we know it, we now have a meta-level effect going on—not just the self-inflating of a particular thing, but the self-inflating its positive effect of what it—the self– does in/with this thing called life and reality. It seems to borrow from one inflation to another, in perpetuity, over time. The water we swim in suddenly is like a wholly drained tank with ‘new water’ replaced…clear but imperceptibly toxic.

An overconfidence bias per task moves into a repositioning of a self as the sole influencer that matters. And when this occurs, it is just a matter of time before this fragile reality will require an excess of positive emotions, thoughts, and feedback, fueling a sort of syllogistic reasoning to keep the self in its appointed position rightly. This clouds objective assessments of others, skewing our operating system to make decisions that have a big chunk of feeling right inside them. In other words, we have not only a distortion of our performance perceptions to contend with, but now we get toxified by the false assumption of other people’s intelligence or competencies when we perceive them as likable or attractive–traits that feedback a feel-good component in some form or fashion for us.

What a mess.

How can or should we be mindful to steer clear of this perceptual cluster? Since I am not a believer that this can be short-circuited entirely via the self (the self is inherently self-deceptive and self-aggrandizing), it is best to get outside the arena of self entirely—as much as possible, but certainly more than one’s self will initially “allow” you to do—and look at this whole thing from a 30,000-foot view and realize:

  • There will always be a risk of missing the “spiritual narcissism” inside, around, and between, encompassing all things seemingly good or reinforcing for you. The antidote is not breaking this bias, but 1) living a life of selfless service AMIDST these bias-ridden waters, and 2) likely doing so, more at times you don’t want to (that is, inside an ego pushback moment) than at times it is merely a neutral decision (that is, it’s not going to hurt me to do the right thing, so why not?).
  • Depressive realism is a real thing and has its place that we tend to ignore these days, for we tend now in our culture to make difficult events in life, and the emotions that develop from those equal to a sort of mental health disorder to be medicated. What do I mean? This phrase—depressive realism—was discovered in response to characterizations of people with mere mild levels of depressive mood (which, if we get really honest here, is more of that averaged place of ‘life’ when all the extreme pleasures and sorrows get averaged out over all our days on this earth) who tend to see reality with less cognitive distortions than the Pollyannaish, happy-at-all-costs folks. This fact reminds us of the inadvertent bennies of a way of being that we may not choose if the ego had complete control of the events of our lives.
  • Self-mortification as a phrase gets a bad rap, as it conjures up images typically of ancient spiritual masters and the like abusing themselves through acts of self-flagellation. But this is not what I am alluding to. I am talking about putting our self-driven passions and desires into their proper pecking order. We can always justify fulfilling a passion or desire when we do not see immediate negative consequences. And even then, we come up with our rule book on what constitutes negative. This sets us up for never actually doing the hard work of virtue because it’s a self-enhancing vicious cycle to say something is good enough. Said another way, self-mortification is defined as killing one’s desire to maximize a (usually) pleasure-enhancing situation when seemingly there is no good reason by the world’s standards, at least, to do so, especially given the absence of the apparent (operative word here) malevolent consequences to others. Yes, our self-help world calls this madness, but if “helping the self” is doing so good with our Western world these days, why do we Americans—the largest consumers of self-help products—have some of the most alarming dissatisfaction rates with our lives?

Maybe I don’t matter (as much as others, reality itself, the natural law, etc.).

Maybe I can’t do anything I want (or if I can/should do something, what is the role of nuance, amount, timing, “color,” style, and other intermediary variables I could be ignoring or minimizing?).

Maybe my mind is not meant to overcome or overpower anything, including adversity, but to merely find its proper proportionate place to the externals and be receptive to what I don’t know I don’t know about hardship.

Maybe my emotions are a shared territory of being a glorious creation for my life and a hidden poison when given too much power to guide my life.

Yeah, I probably shouldn’t make a workout video online.


Dr. Kevin Fleming is a three-time University of Notre Dame grad and Founder of a global neurotechnology-based firm, Grey Matters International, Inc., that concentrates on providing true sustainable behavior change solutions for distinctive clientele seeking to go beyond mere self-help, coaching, and therapy. His work has been featured in top media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor and has been endorsed by faculty members in both Harvard Medical and Business Schools, given the crossover illusions of success and happiness that confuse high performing brains of our modern day. This innovative neuroleadership research and practice of his prompted an invite to speak for top Middle Eastern leaders in 2008, which had cabinet members for the King of Jordan in attendance. He received a feature chapter on his behavior change work in a book that hit the tops of both Wall Street and NY Times bestseller charts, ALL IN by Adrian Gostick. With the growth of Grey Matters International his offering of cutting edge neurotechnology options for creating breakthroughs in mental health, he was asked to be an expert aftercare resource for the CBS hit show “Face the Truth”, created by the producers of The Doctors and Dr. Phil. In addition to being considered as one of the top personal & executive coaches globally (published in interviews and anthologies with the great Marshall Goldsmith, the late Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra), he is the U.S. Ambassador for the International Regulatory Body of Coaching and Mentoring. He is also on the Advisory Board for the DeNicola Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame. He resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Tulsa, OK and enjoys singing/songwriting and recording as a semi-professional recording artist and studio drummer, having recorded projects with the producer/bandmate affiliated with Carole King and Dan Fogelberg.

Kevin Fleming

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