Do any of us really understand why we believe what we believe?

The Halo Effect

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

When I was 6 or 7, I thought that Jesus was born in Pennsylvania. My reasoning was this: Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a city in Pennsylvania, therefore Jesus was born in Pennsylvania.

It’s an argument form that seems so solid and obvious that logicians have a special name for it: modus ponens. But I had, in logician parlance, “affirmed the antecedent” too quickly. Due to my lack of knowledge of world cities—and experience with religion that consisted entirely of going to a small country church with my grandparents once a year—I failed to realize that another Bethlehem also existed halfway across the world.

I had also piled on a no-no from the realm of psychology: Since I already believed that Jesus was born in Pennsylvania, other information seemed to confirm that truth. In the city of Bethlehem, there is a Nazarene star lighted on the hillside at all times. Close by, there is also a town called Nazareth. Once again, I had fallen into a common trap with a special name: Psychologists call our tendency to collect “facts” that reinforce a belief we already hold “confirmation bias.”

Psychology and social science also tell us that once we believe something is true, it’s hard for us to unring the bell. And when we benefit from our belief? We’ll remain willfully and happily in the dark. (In this category, I would put the fact that we helped feed my Uncle Harvey’s pigs in the summer, but for some reason not in the winter—when, of course, they were feeding us.)

Beliefs with immediate consequences are easy to act on; no one wants to touch a hot stove. Those with a longer timeline, like smoking, especially when it’s perceived as cool? That’s a habit that’s much harder to snuff out. The last example gets at one of the reasons why advocacy around climate change is so difficult: Simply having more facts about something that may affect us in the future doesn’t have a huge impact on what we do today.

But understanding our own psychology and biases could also help us. We may know that we have to live differently if we want to stop the most deleterious effects of climate change and environmental degradation. But to really make those changes, we need to be held accountable to other people, and it’s especially helpful if those people, for us, have a halo.

The “halo effect” is a subset of confirmation bias; it’s the instinct we have to ascribe positive characteristics, ideas or values to a person or organization that we already know, trust and like. The many communities of faith who are joining the ranks of climate activists are extremely powerful advocates because their followers already know and trust them, they are already organized, and they are already predisposed to help one another put their beliefs into action. A growing number of religious leaders and faithful are saying aloud a simple but powerful notion that has both faith and logic behind it: If we are part of the earth, and we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves.

But whether that realization comes from your faith in a religion, your belief in science, the instinct to trust your gut or a combination of all three—it doesn’t really matter. The larger the proverbial choir, the more people will be attracted to the cause.

That’s just who we are as humans. The more people who lead, the more people who will follow.