What do Faron Hall and Susan Boyle have in common? They both exceeded people’s low expectations of them.
You’ve probably heard of Susan Boyle, whose audition on Britain’s Got Talent shocked everyone. Who would have thought that a homely woman could have a beautiful singing voice?
I’m not imagining this. People interviewed on TV were uniformly shocked that a homeless man would emerge as the hero of this life-and-death story. But why?
Aren’t homeless people human beings, the same as you and me? In a crisis, shouldn’t we expect a homeless person to respond as any other human being would respond?
Hall’s story, like Susan Boyle’s, is an example of the halo effect:
People seem not to think of other individuals in mixed terms; instead we seem to see each person as roughly good or roughly bad across all categories of measurement.
The halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a beautiful woman) is positive, and we assume good things about her in other respects. For example, she might impress a prospective employer and receive a job offer despite a weak resume.
The reverse halo effect occurs when our first impression of someone (e.g. a homeless man) is negative. Reflexively we assume there’s no good in him. In Mr. Hall’s case, that would be a big mistake:
Mr. Hall […] was sharing a beer with a friend, Wayne Spence, downriver from the bridge when he heard a loud splash. In a light-hearted mood after a long day of collecting cans, he remembers saying, “Damn, that must have hurt.”
But humour turned to shock when they spotted the teen screaming for help 40 metres out on the fast-moving river. Living life on the margins helped him decided what to do next. “People ignore me,” he says. “But I don’t ignore them. We look out for one another out here.”
He threw off his backpack, kicked off his old black dress shoes and jumped into the chilly water.
“When I got to the kid, he started fighting me,” says Mr. Hall, pointing to a bloody scar on his forehead where the teen socked him. “I had to smack him back, tell him, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you.'” He’d pulled the teen within 20 metres of shore when his adrenalin stalled and fatigue set in. “It’s too damn cold,” he remembers yelling to Mr. Spence, who was standing along the shore.
“You can’t let go, you can make it,” Mr. Spence yelled back, before wading up to his knees in the water to drag his friend and the petrified teen to the shore.
The New York Times analysed the Susan Boyle story from a psychological point of view. Coincidentally, the Times article also made passing reference to homeless people:
Professor Fiske’s research suggests that those in low status register differently in the brain. “The part of the brain that normally activates when you are thinking about people is surprisingly silent when you’re looking at homeless people,” she said. “It’s kind of a neural dehumanization. Maybe we can’t bear the horrible situation they are in, or we don’t want to get involved, or we’re afraid we might get contaminated.”
But, she said, the neural response is restored when people are asked to focus on what soup the homeless person might like to eat, something that makes one think about the person as someone with wants or goals.
Faron Hall’s good deed was truly heroic. The Red River is higher than usual just now, having flooded only a couple of weeks ago. The water was quite cold; the current was very strong. Mr. Hall risked his life, and had difficulty making it back to shore.
Thus I mean no disrespect when I insist that Faron Hall did what the best among us would do in his place: he responded as a human being who sees that another human being is in grave need. The CBC reports:
Hall, 44, is hoping the attention he is receiving will help change the public perception of homeless people. He wants people to see the homeless the way they are seeing him now.
“All us homeless people, we’re not all stupid idiots. We’re not all bums who dress dirty,” he said. “Don’t judge the way we dress; judge right here, in the mind and in the heart.”
In other words, let’s resist that reverse halo effect.