Provided by Natalie from Big Happy Life
When I was studying for my Psychology degree, I was required to take annual exams. In the first and second years, I answered the exam questions in the order in which they were presented. I did well both years – achieving around 75% each time – never thinking for a second that the order in which I submitted my answers might make any difference to my results.
In my third year, I read Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, in which he described the necessity for people to experience “cognitive ease”. He explains that our brains are so constantly taxed with computations about how to interpret our surroundings that we look for ways to simplify information. We ignore bits, add bits and manipulate bits in favour of stories that make sense because these are so much easier to process. Kahneman shared an example from his own life involving his work as a university professor. He realised that the grades he was awarding were biased by his knowledge of each student’s past grades. When he knew whose paper he was marking, there was little fluctuation in the results between papers. When he marked blind, much wider fluctuations occurred.
In my third year exam, armed with the knowledge that markers probably wouldn’t take deliberate steps to avoid this sort of bias, I decided to use it to my advantage. We were allowed to answer the four exam questions in any order so, rather than answer them as they appeared, I ordered my answers from best to worst. I didn’t know very much about the subject for the fourth one and I ran out of time so it was a pretty poor essay. I got 91% for that exam.
Although I can’t easily determine how much of my success was down to bias, I believe it definitely played a part and I’ve been fascinated with cognitive biases ever since. If my theory is correct, I benefited from a combination of the Halo Effect and Confirmation bias.
The basic gist of the Halo effect is that if you associate one or two positive traits or attractive qualities with a person or thing, you’ll infer additional positive traits with little or no concrete evidence to support their existence. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or notice information that confirms a pre-existing belief. In the case of my exam – my first essay established the “knowledgeable student” halo and the remaining essays, despite getting progressively worse, had enough good information in them for the marker to find what he or she needed to confirm the initial assessment of my work.
Another area where I’m often aware of benefiting from the halo effect is as an adoptive parent. My parenting mistakes and misdemeanours have been frequent and varied – including missing an event at my daughter’s school so she sat alone, surrounded by her friends and their parents, leaving my son in his nappy for so long it split and leaked everywhere and throwing a sachet of mulchy baby food across the room in a fit of rage – but have always been met with choruses of, “you have to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. Parenting is bloody hard and you’ve been thrown right in at the deep end,”
I find myself wondering whether my children’s birth mother ever benefitted from the support that’s offered to those with halos or whether she was more often met with the judgement that accompanies the darker shadow of the horns effect. (It works exactly the same way as the halo effect but negative traits are inferred instead of positive traits.)
I don’t know much about her story – only what I’ve read in the social workers’ reports. These suggest she was a woman who didn’t take deliberate actions to abuse or neglect her children but she rarely did the things she needed to do to keep them safe and healthy.
To listen to my daughter talk about her birth mother, you’d struggle to understand why she might have been removed for her care. My daughter talks about her “old mum” very fondly and has more than a few happy memories of dancing and singing in the kitchen, playing together and snuggling in bed together. There is no mention of any of this in the social workers’ reports.
Is it possible both accounts are accurate? I think yes – but this is not a story that comes with the comfort of cognitive ease. This story is messy with heroes and villains difficult to identify. It sits uncomfortably in the mind, begging to be simplified. Far easier to have the bad birth parent, the good social worker and the good adopter. If we move good and bad around, what happens to the story? It’s a scary thought.