THE BLOG
01/20/2015 09:43 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

"The Halo Effect" and "Blinding Charisma": Food for Understanding and Thought, Thought, and More Thought

In 1920 psychologist Edward Thorndike (1874 to 1949) coined the phrase, "The Halo Effect," which grew to define one's overall impression in his or her life --- of a person, a leader, a product, of absolutely anything -- as experienced only positively, with any neutral, conflicting or negative thoughts completely ruled out.

Although Edward Bernays (1891 to 1995) is known as both the Father of Spin and Public Relations (he introduced the latter term as a replacement for "propaganda"), Thorndike's empirical research is also essential to the field. His article introducing the concept of The Halo Effect, "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings," held seeds for the brand marketing of everything, including, of course, political candidates and how we learn to view historical events.

The halo is well remembered in Renaissance paintings, where beautiful light circles the heads of saints, connoting a powerful force of good that is worthy of adoration. Halo branding obviously works in two directions: While successful positive branding makes the heart aflutter with the heightened belief, "this is what I believe and want and must have," the opposite causes intense dislike and even hatred. Neither instinctual reaction involves careful analysis or evaluation of fact.

The Halo Effect can also resonate naturally from those whose instincts are kind, generous, trustworthy and sincere. If we are fortunate, we have experienced this quality of person and his or her powerful presence, one offering calm, beauty, and hope. Falling in love can also invoke this kind of seeming magic. Repeatedly I have heard, "I fell head over heels in love, and actually saw a light above his/her head."

However, there is an aspect of the Halo Effect that I now refer to as Blinding Charisma. There are those among us who successfully use charm, manipulation, and deception to control another. With this in mind, I have also been told, "When I realized I had been betrayed, and I saw who this person I loved really was, I felt sheer hatred and actually saw horns."

Examples of Blinding Charisma in personal interactions are rampant. As an example, I know several versions of the following: A friend telephoned that her son's wife of 6 months has walked out on him. "She took me in too, I must admit," my friend shared, continuing with a familiar recounting, "Dave fell head over heals with Amanda's beauty, brains, and ambition the moment he met her in law school. He believed they would be a terrific team. Dave did everything to make Amanda's life easy for her, sharing all responsibilities. He was head over heals, as they each began their careers in different law firms. Then at work, Amanda began spending time with a firm partner, who left his wife for her. Our son was the last to know."

Here is another situation I know about in myriad forms: A young man believes he is marrying an heiress, and that this marriage will make his life a great deal easier. When the financial situation of his wife's family changes, it does not take him long to let his wife and children know that he too will be changing his life, away from them.

In addition, of course, we all know of "blinding" political leaders who do not care about the well being of those who are dependent upon them. And we know of manufacturers and distributors who market dangerous products and goods through lies and distortion.

All powerful art, whatever its form, has the ability to provide insight and truth, and at the same time bring people together, inspire and offer hope. However, it can also distort truth. I am so sad that another example of Blinding Charisma is found it the brilliant, extraordinarily acted, and passionate film, "Selma," which inaccurately portrays Lyndon Johnson as one who stood in the way of Martin Luther King's determination to bring voting rights to Blacks. It is this untrue historical depiction that many, perhaps most, of the millions who will see the "Selma" will take with them. This will predictably lead so unnecessarily to further misunderstanding, mistrust, and divisiveness.

As an antidote to Blinding Charisma, we all saw The Halo Effect tenderly offered on Martin Luther King's birthday. When Pope Francis was in Manila, a formally homeless 12-year-old girl, who had witnessed the height of despair and torment before she was given shelter, openly cried as she asked the Pope why children were allowed to suffer. Gently cupping the child's head in both hands, the Pope replied, in part, "Only when we, too, can cry about things that you said are we able to reply to that question."