As we know now, Subway spokesperson Jared Fogle is going to plead guilty to a plethora of charges involving child pornography and sexual crimes against minors.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about him, there’s been enough written about the case itself, but I was reminded of something earlier today that made me think of Jared, and child abusers in general. I was listening to a podcast while I worked this afternoon and the guest mentioned something about the “halo effect”, a form of cognitive bias where we see one positive quality of a person and assume the existence of other positive traits with no proof.
Let’s take a quote from About.com:
The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person (“He is nice!”) impacts your evaluations of that person’s specific traits (“He is also smart!”).
One great example of the halo effect in action is our overall impression of celebrities.
Since we perceive them as attractive, successful, and often likeable, we also tend to see them as intelligent, kind, and funny.
This is something that happens in our brains, and it’s pretty normal for all of us to think that way, despite the fact that it’s wrong.
In regards to child abusers, we not only see the halo effect, in this case, Jared seemed like a nice guy, based on his story and the way he appeared in Subway’s ads, so we assumed he really was a nice, caring, guy next door, but we also have the opposite, the devil effect.
The devil effect is when we find something we do not like about someone, and start to assume other negative traits.
Now what does this have to do with abusers? Everything.
We know that most children are abused by someone they know and trust, someone known to the family. We also tend to describe abusers in monstrous terms. When we think someone has abused a child, the devil effect plays on our mind and the picture we paint is someone very anti-social, creepy, violent, and sub-human.
On the other end of the spectrum, when we see people who don’t fit that “type” in our mind, we assume they aren’t abusers, but there is no logical reason to assume that. In fact, getting into a position of trust with a child, and their family, requires quite a lot of positive traits; warmth, a sense of humor, being socially adept, athletic, etc. That’s how abusers get access to children with otherwise very protective parents, and it’s how even when caught, some abusers get fairly light sentences if any at all. They just don’t seem like the kind of person who would hurt a child. (This is especially true when the abuser is female. We allow our impression of women being nurturing by nature, and attractive, to color how we view them when they can be just as dangerous to children.)
It’s important to understand the cognitive bias that we all have enough to counter-balance its effects. We need to move beyond seeing the “nice, good-looking, caring” person and assuming they are safe. There are simply too many examples of someone who fits that description actually being very dangerous.
Truthfully, we are all made up of a huge number of both positive and not-so-flattering, qualities. None of us is perfectly good, or bad. We’re simply human. Seeing humans for what they are, and not assuming the good, or bad, will keep us all safer, and saner.