The Gradient of Halos

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties as a whole. For example, someone who is perceived as attractive, due in part to physical traits, may be more likely to be perceived as kind or intelligent. Another example could be viewing quantitative approaches to solving world poverty as a sure shot to ending the world’s problems.

Romanticizing seems to be another example of the halo effect: It makes something seem better or more appealing than it really is. Lets call one of these halo-ed entities a ‘halo’.

So lets say a person has a halo (i.e. an entity that she romanticizes). If that person can experience the halo, then her perspective of it will change as a result. This change can be attributed to a combination of two things: (1) the individual changes, and therefor her perspective of the halo changes. (2) the individual gains a more intimate understanding of the halo, and as a result her relationship with it changes. In #1 the individual changes. In #2 the individual only becomes more experientially familiar. In both cases the mystery comes at least partly from looking for something that doesn’t exist.

The Gradient of Halos is a durable spiritual cognitive bias when seeking.


——-Attachment and Non-Attachment———–

“Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention–meditation, yoga, prayer–can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. We seek pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, and moods. We satisfy our intellectual curiosity. We surround ourselves with friends and loved ones. We become connoisseurs of art, music, or food. But our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. (Sam Harris)

This excerpt mostly refers to the fleeting nature of hedonic attachments that we tend to indulge in. It then suggests that many attachments cannot lead to fulfillment because of change: we get bored, they go away, the feelings are fleeting. Certain practices, such as meditation, can help us cultivate a perspective of acceptance, thereby becoming less attached to external things. This is useful, but not sufficient. It is useful because it has the goal of finding sources of happiness within ourselves that are more foundational than the things that change in our external world. However, it is not sufficient because we should not detach from things that we have forged meaning into.

Halos don’t come from things that hold benefit in this moment, but from things that hold benefit in the future. Halos are by definition a meaningful goal. And people living in wealthy democracies can set long-term meaningful goals and expect to meet them.

“Although all of us will get unwanted surprises along the way, we’ll adapt and cope with nearly all of them, and many of us will believe we are better off for having suffered. So to cut off all attachments, to shun the pleasures of sensuality and triumph in an effort to escape the pains of loss and defeat–this now strikes me as an inappropriate response to the inevitable presence of some suffering in everyday life…Through passionate attachments to people, goals, and pleasures, life must be lived to the fullest… To do otherwise is an affront to human nature.” -Jonathan Haidt

——-Benefitting from Both———–
This gives us two goals: stoic detachment from things that aren’t meaningful, and attachment to things that are. The latter are where Halos exists. However, I don’t think they can exist without the former. This is because devoting significant attention to a practice of non-attachment increases the meaning of things you are attached to. I think this is primarily because this kind of practice helps you become aware of your reasons for persisting attachment, thus strengthening its meaning to you. I think its also because as you detach from things that aren’t meaningful, you can spend more attention on those that are. 

———–The Spiritual Ideology——————-
When a goal’s meaning takes on a significance that encompasses everything, it becomes spiritual. I’ll define spiritual as ‘the sacred significance of something’. And I’ll define sacred as ‘that which encompasses everything’. Therefor spiritual is something like the significance of that which encompasses everything. Without strong meaning (which is cultivated through both meaningful attachments and practicing non attachment), there is less aggregate significance. Halos come from significant meaning that coherently originates from a moral set of values.

Halos tend towards the ideological. This is because (1) they attempt to embody the most meaning, and (2) our ignorance holds them at least partially from reality. Following a halo, with a bias towards action, is a projection of the ideology onto reality. It becomes less glorified, but also more real. Waiting for an ideal within reality is synonymous with paralysis.

Specifics are inherently distanced from holistic purpose. Learn from the reality; Update the ideology; And find a path in which you enjoy the specifics.

In general, we feel pleasure and pain in relation to our progress towards goals, hopes, and expectations. Therefor, sustainable pleasure for the spiritually curious comes from progress towards halos: seek out meaningful romanticizations, deconstruct them, grow, then move on to the next halo and repeat. This process is the removal of idiosyncratic cognitive biases through valued, novel experiences [2]. The importance comes from the Halos. The fulfillment comes from its gradient.[3]

This progress can lead to certain achievements and experiences that secure certain pieces of one’s identity. But afterwards, it only makes more apparent a more foundational lacking of lasting fulfillment. Success can be difficult if it causes us to lose the rhythm of our progress towards things of meaning.

Therefor, it is important not to get stuck from either failures or successes.



[1] It seems appropriate to call the deconstruction of ideals an Anti-Path because it is the deconstruction of “Paths”.

[2] It seems like this deconstruction best happens through experience, and not through communication. Its not an information asymmetry, but an experiential asymmetry. This is very important for education: to what extent can difficult facts about human nature, and widely held ideologies be authentically understood through communication? Can behavioral psychology, even with walk-throughs of experiments, re-create people’s existing models of human tendencies, when those tendencies are socially viewed negatively? Can the ideals of society be experientially deconstructed through propagating epistemic logic? Probably not.

[3] Note that this gradient results in a constantly changing identity which has limited hindsight:

“a general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.” (Daniel Kahneman)



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