Nobel Peace prize, Trump and the Halo effect

In 2009, when I heard Obama had won the Nobel peace prize within months of becoming a US President (meaning he must have been nominated much earlier) – it just felt awfully weird. I drew the below Shitoon.

The above will not appear funny unless you remember a 2009 video that had gone viral, where Obama swats a fly. The video is funny.

Anyway, so I didn’t dig deep much into it then.

When they gave one to Malala few years down the line, I did find it amusing, like many others, but again, didn’t bother to investigate much. Until this happened.

This sounded too ridiculous to be true. But true it was. In fact I learnt that Trump had been nominated earlier too (but obviously didn’t win).

I decided it was time to figure out how such ridiculousness creeps in, in something that is apparently so prestigious that Indians have been offended since long that Gandhi never got one.

By the way, as I am writing this blog, I hear that Trump has been nominated again! Shit gets shittier.

Nomination is of course not the same as winning.

After a bit of reading I now understand that the reason nomination can get ridiculous is because just too many people can nominate any person of their choice. The criteria and the link to submit the nomination-form is accessible to everyone here. There are over 300 nominees this year! Trump is just one of them.

Is it possible then that Modi has been nominated too? Going by the criteria for nomination, yes pretty much possible. One can never officially find out though (true for Trump too).

The Nobel Committee does not itself announce the names of nominees, neither to the media nor to the candidates themselves. In certain cases names of candidates appear in the media. These advanced speculations are either the product of sheer speculation or information released by the person or persons behind the nomination.

Neither the names of nominators nor of nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize may be divulged until the start of the year marking the 50th anniversary of the awarding of a particular prize.

Source – Nobel Peace Prize

Although Gandhi never won, even he was nominated a bunch of times. And given that pretty much anyone can be nominated – so were Hitler and Mussolini. Basically, nomination means shit. They are also forged once in a while.

A 2018 NYT article reports that Trump’s nomination has indeed been forged twice.

Anyway, so who selects the winner from all the nominations? Just a bunch of old people (usually 5 or 6).

The Norwegian Nobel Committee 2020. From left: Thorbjørn Jagland, Henrik Syse (vice chair), Berit Reiss-Andersen (chair), Anne Enger, Olav Njølstad (secretary), Asle Toje.

With all these insights, why does anyone care about the Nobel Peace prize, really?

To find an answer, I read a 2019 book (at least the first chapter) by Geir Lundestad. He was the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and the Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee for 25 years (1990 -2014).

Last year (2019), when Lundestad was asked what he thought of Trump ever winning the prize, this is what he said:

I would be extremely surprised if Donald Trump ever received the Nobel Peace Prize. He may say he wants to bring peace to the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula, but he has not accomplished anything. And his policies do not fall into line with the ideas of liberal internationalism.


As per Lundestad, there are four main reasons that make the Nobel Peace prize “The World’s Most Prestigious Prize”:

  1. It’s 100+ year old
  2. It belongs to a family of prizes (and Nobel Prize for science, economics, literature etc. are hardly as debated + their selection is more sorted / technical)
  3. In spite of few mistakes (not giving one to Gandhi for example – that Lundestad acknowledges in his book) and few controversies here and there (Obama?), the record has mostly been solid.
  4. The prize has proven to be relatively flexible – the peace concept for example has been expanded and the prize has gradually become more global.

The issue with point no. 3 (on track record) is, every time someone like Trump makes a headline, associating himself with the Nobel Peace Prize, it brings down the value of the prize itself. It leads to articles like what ‘The Atlantic’ published today titled “End the Nobel Peace Prize“.

If Trump wins the prize, it will be the fourth Nobel awarded for peace between Israel and its neighbors. That will make Arab-Israeli peace mediators more successful at charming the Nobel Committee than the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has won three times in the prize’s 120-year history, but still less successful than my favorite, which is no one at all. The committee has declined to award a peace prize 19 times.

The record of achievement of the peace laureates is so spotty, and the rationales for their awards so eclectic, that the committee should take a long break to consider whether peace is a category coherent enough to be worth recognizing. Peace had its chance, and blew it.

Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

Before I end this blog, I want to touch upon a different but related topic.

Why did I instinctively find Trump’s nomination ridiculous even before I found out these details?

That’s most likely halo effect at work. Let me explain.

Imagine two random people – Anil and Varun. Following are their traits.

Anil: intelligent-industrious-impulsive-critical-stubborn-envious

Varun: envious-stubborn-critical-impulsive-industrious-intelligent

See how you felt differently about Anil than about Varun (please tell me you did)? I used an illustration from my current favourite book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” (chapter 7) and just added Indian names.

This experiment has been conducted on various people and the conclusion is solid – “the initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later. The stubbornness of an intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an envious and stubborn person makes him more dangerous.”

That’s halo effect at work where your brain feels like jumping to a conclusion about a person based on first few information that you gather (you put them in the ‘good’ box or the ‘bad’ box’).

Since Trump is in my ‘bad’ box, my cognitive bias immediately makes me uncomfortable when something like a Nobel Peace prize gets associated with his name.

In fact the halo effect is also a possible explanation for the positive association we have for the Nobel Peace prize itself (point no. 2 from Lundestad – ‘it belongs to a family of prizes’).

The consistently credible Nobel prizes in other disciplines make us view the overall brand in a strong positive light and so even when the nomination / selection and everything else for the Peace prize is totally different, the instinctive part of our brain over-rides the rational, and the brand continues to remain strong!

The below quote from a 2007 Wiki discussions page would be the best way to close this blog.

Some in this discussion have argued that nominations are notable because of the significant publicity given to them. But this is circular: The public gives nominations attention because it mistakenly believes they are notable (as I and many others here believed before looking into it). If Wikipedia decides they are notable because the public does, it will only reinforce the public view that they are notable. If everybody in the world knew all the facts around nominations, it is likely that most would not find them notable.

Source (emphasis is my own)

Hope you learnt something, thanks.

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