Why every union should be worried about the HSU scandal

Imagine a pervasive force that creates a systematic bias in how people perceive your union, based not on evidence or careful evaluation but on a “global affect” or feeling.

This is the halo effect, an old and widely studied, but little understood, psychological phenomenon.

The halo effect is generally though of as the influence of a “global evaluation” on individual assessments of a brand, person or institution. Thus, if we like a person, we typically assume positive attitudes towards their other attributes, even if we know nothing about those traits.

This global effect is capable of altering perceptions of even unambiguous stimuli about which someone has sufficient information to make an independent judgement. For example, many people change their preference of cola after a blind-taste test when they know the brand they drank.

The halo effect is an unconscious influence that involves significant, substantial impact over our conscious views, attitudes and beliefs.

Brands have benefited from the halo effect for decades. It explains why Apple was able to transfer the ipod sense of “cool” across its lacklustre set of laptops and PCs. It’s also why universities with Nobel Prize winning academics are perceived by students to be better places to study.

But, as Dr Peter Hughes explains, it can also have negative effects. The MPs expenses scandal in the UK saw innocent parliamentarians tarred with the same brush as those who expensed teddy bears, sweets, moats and non-existent mortgages. The “global effect” meant that all MPs were perceived as corrupt or guilty of rorts, even if there was evidence that they were squeaky clean.

And it is for exactly this reason that unions in Australia should be very worried about the HSU scandal.

Unions in Australia have benefited from significantly positive perceptions following the Your Rights at Work campaign. Most Australians have a positive or neutral view of unions, with less than 20% thinking they’re bad for Australia.

The halo effect (or “devil effect”) means that perceptions can unconsciously shift. What people loved today, they can hate tomorrow. The halo can slip, and when this happens, the effects can be hugely damaging.

What is particularly worrying for unions, is that the halo effect is unconscious. Most people are unaware when they’re influenced by the halo effect. Their judgements, inferences and attitudes towards unions can change without them even knowing they’ve changed.

This risk demonstrates the importance of curating “Brand Union”, and taking proactive steps to defend it. Individual unions may be inoculating their members with assurances of strong governance arrangements and transparent salary statements of the leadership, but those communications largely only reach members. There remains the other 80 percent of the workforce who are subject to the full force of the halo effect.

2 responses to “Why every union should be worried about the HSU scandal”

  1. Angas Avatar

    We ran 4 focus groups of mainly non union members at the height of the HSU/Thompson media coverge. The purpose of the groups was to establish what non members knew about unions and what those who had left unions felt were the “good”and “bad” things unions did.
    With all groups we explored what it would take to get them to join/rejoin.
    Our expectation, prior to conducting the focus groups, was that the wall-to-wall media coverage would taint the exercise and all we would hear was a repeat of the negative media messages.
    Not mentioned once. Not a peep.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Angas,

      Thanks for the comment. The interesting thing about the halo effect is that it is “subterranean” or unconscious. That is, people may not raise the issue of the HSU or Craig Thomson, but their views may change regardless, and certainly in the face of the rational, conscious information in front of them.

      Nevertheless, it is heartening to hear that this kind of work is being done.


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