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The halo effect

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A little while ago, I expressed disappointment on Facebook that my MLA was absent for a particular vote in the legislature. Given the legislature sits, on average, less than 50 days a year and that our MLAs are paid quite generously (at minimum, $134  000 each year), it’s not unreasonable that we expect our elected representatives to show up every single day for every single vote.

Although there was nothing partisan or personal behind my remarks, they generated a fair number of negative comments, three private messages, two phone calls and one “unfriending.” The people who rose to my MLA’s defence were, predictably, members of the same party as him and they helpfully offered all sorts of reasons as to why his absence was acceptable. The response was symptomatic of the halo effect which is serving to seriously hamper how accountable our elected representatives need to be.

The halo effect, a term first coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike, refers to a cognitive bias that allows our positive impression of someone to cloud our judgment about everything that person does, including accepting or excusing behaviour we wouldn’t tolerate in someone we hold in lesser regard. The opposite of the halo effect—when one bad quality or experience clouds your view of a person—is known as the “devil” or “horn” effect.

It’s pretty obvious how this plays out politically. You can see it just about every day in Ottawa, where Stephen Harper’s Conservatives point their fingers at the sense of entitlement and incidents of corruption at the hands of previous Liberal governments while outperforming them in both at every turn. The hyper-partisan times in which we live means that if anyone in our own political tribe does anything disreputable, it should be met with either stony silence or talking points explaining why it’s only wrong when the other guys do it.

It’s important not to confuse the halo or horn effects with outright hypocrisy, the likes of which we saw last week when Minister of Labour, former deputy premier and potential PC leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk took issue with former premier Alison Redford’s continued absence from the legislature. “My constituents expect me to show up to work every day and that’s what taxpayers are paying me for,” he said, conveniently forgetting that last year, while he was Minister of Advanced Education, he missed the presentation of the provincial budget which drastically slashed post-secondary budgets across the province because he was on vacation building playgrounds in Vietnam. Similarly, he missed at least six days of the fall legislature session the year before that while he took a personal trip to Poland and Israel.

Hypocrisy driven by self-interest is a different threat than the more systemic one I’m talking about. The halo effect restricts our ability to hold elected representatives as a whole to a higher standard and until that occurs, public disengagement from the political process is going to continue to get a whole lot worse. Partisans of all stripes might want to consider that and check their biases the next time they feel the urge to enthusiastically defend one of their own.

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