The Halo Effect


The Mysterious Mind!

What is the Halo Effect?
    --Simply put the Halo Effect is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likeable) bleed over into judgements about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent).

The 'halo effect' is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likeable) bleed over into judgements about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly. Because they are often attractive and likeable we naturally assume they are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgement and so on. That is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary.

In the same way politicians use the 'halo effect' to their advantage by

The Halo Effect

trying to appear warm and friendly, while saying little of any substance. People tend to believe their policies are good, because the person appears good. It's that simple.

But you would think we could pick up these sorts of mistaken judgements by simply introspecting and, in a manner of speaking, retrace our thought processes back to the original mistake. In the 1970s, well-known social psychologist Richard Nisbett set out to demonstrate how little access we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo effect in particular.



The Likeability of Lecturers--According to Nisbett & Wilson

Nisbett and Wilson wanted to examine the way student participants made judgements about a lecturer (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Students were told the research was investigating teacher evaluations. Specifically, they were told, the experimenters were interested in whether judgements varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular lecturer. This was a total lie.

In fact the students had been divided into two groups who were going to watch two different videos of the same lecturer, who happened to have a strong Belgian

accent (this is relevant!). One group watched the lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner. The second group saw exactly the same person answer exactly the questions in a cold and distant manner. Experimenters made sure it was obvious which of the lecturers alter-egos was more likeable. In one he appeared to like teaching and students and in the other he came across as a much more authoritarian figure who didn't like teach at all.

After each group of students watched the videos they were asked to rate the lecturer on physical appearance, mannerisms and even his accent (mannerisms were kept the same across both videos). Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the 'warm' incarnation of the lecturer rated him more attractive, his mannerisms more likeable and even is accent as more appealing. This was unsurprising as it backed up previous work on the halo effect.




Unconscious Judgements

The surprise is that students had no clue whatsoever why they gave one lecturer higher ratings, even after they were given every chance. After the study it was suggested to them that how much they liked the lecturer might have affected their evaluations. Despite this, most said that how much they liked the lecturer from what he said had not affected their evaluation of his individual characteristics at all.

For those who had seen the badass lecturer the results were even worse - students got it the wrong way around. Some thought their ratings of his individual characteristics had actually affected their global evaluation of his likeability.

Even after this, the experimenters were not satisfied. They interviewed students again to ask them whether it was possible their global evaluation of the lecturer had affected their ratings of the lecturer's attributes. Still, the students told them it hadn't. They were convinced they had made their judgement about the lecturer's physical appearance, mannerisms and accent without considering how likeable he was.





Common Uses of the Halo Effect

The halo effect in itself is fascinating and now well-known in the business world. According to 'Reputation Marketing' by John Marconi, books that have 'Harvard Classics' written on the front can demand twice the price of the exact same book without the Harvard endorsement. The same is true in the fashion industry. The addition of a well-known fashion designer's name to a simple pair of jeans can inflate their price tremendously.

But what this experiment demonstrates is that although we can understand the halo effect intellectually, we often have no idea when it is actually happening. This is what makes it such a useful effect for marketers and politicians. We quite naturally make the kinds of adjustments demonstrated in this experiment without even realizing it.

The Halo Effect

And then, even when it's pointed out to us, we may well still deny it.

So, the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of designer jeans or decide whether you like someone, ask yourself whether the halo effect is operating. Are you really evaluating the traits of the person or product you thought you were? Alternatively is some global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgement? This simple check could save you voting for the wrong person, wasting your money or rejecting someone who would be a loyal friend.





Learned Behavior & The Halo Effect

We have all been told that first impressions are important. How important would you say they are and at what point in life do they begin to matter? Would you believe it if someone told you that unattractive infants have significantly lower developmental skills? Although this may not be scientifically true, 64% of parents believe this (1). In fact, this kind of presumption does not stop with infant abilities but continues in the classroom, work area, and even when choosing politicians?


The halo effect is described as a cognitive tendency to place particular traits or expectations on someone based on perceptions of a former trait (2). Simply put this suggests that, what is beautiful is good (i.e. beautiful people are smarter). This tendency is a learned behavior that everyone experiences from the time they are children. In fairy tales such as, Cinderella, those who are good are often presented as beautiful princesses and handsome princes, while the ‘evil doers' are often referred to as ‘ugly step sisters' or ‘beasts'. The attractive characters are often portrayed as honest and trustworthy, while unattractive ones are crooks and villains (5). Is there any scientific evidence behind this theory and if so do they lead to greater implications within society?


It is apparent that one's first impressions of another affect their successive interactions and that one's expectations influence another's behavior (4). But can a pupil's attractiveness also influence a teacher's judgment on that student's IQ, social status with peers, parental attitude toward school, and future educational accomplishments? Yes, studies show that teachers did perceive attractive children to have a greater potential for education than those who were unattractive (4). What does this mean? This suggests that not only were they expected to perform better based upon the way they looked, but because of this they were given more attention and favored by the teachers leading to a higher grade increase within a six month period. Thus, within society, the consequences of the halo effect can lead to an inequality in education.


Another place in society where the halo effect appears is within the work environment. Though this is tackled in human resource training it is said to be an unconscious judgment and even if we were told that our judgments are affected by the halo effect, we may still have no clue when it influences us (2). This is interesting because not only is one often guilty of prejudging but it does not seem to go through a part of brain where one can pin point its occurrence. So how unbiased are interviewers and recruiters? Some research shows that people who are determined to be attractive make about 5% more than people considered to be unattractive and are often promoted before their employee counterparts (7). According to these statistics it is clear that the more attractive you are the better chance in the job market. A similar trend is noted in dating, people select for a more attractive counterpart than themselves. Women tend to choose men who are taller, more attractive, and smarter than they are (same as men) (5). According to these trends attractive people are not only making more money but also highly selected for. It seems as though we are a society selectively breeding for beauty and brains (3).


Not only are we breeding for beauty but according to a study done in 2006 the halo effect transpires into election of candidates also. It was hypothesized and confirmed that the halo effect brought forth by physical attractiveness is more apparent than the halo effect obtained by vocal attractiveness (based on tone, diction, pitch, etc). Candidates deemed physically attractive were chosen as people who appeared to be better suited for office (8). Yes, there were those who were chosen on the basis of vocal attractiveness but in the end candidates with attractive physical were chosen more often than those with attractive vocals. Could this be a detriment to society's goals and values? If a majority their decisions for candidacy on a small

portion of appearance it brings forth a problem with the values of our country. With a society that has a billion dollar industry emphasizing beauty (through fitness, fashion, et al.) this makes lots of sense. Studies will continue to show that attractive people are indirectly treated better because of this halo effect and the resulting interactions from those first impressions will be better also (4).


Throughout the research, the different studies that were done with infants, school aged student, and adults were of great interest. I realized that the way we treat attractive people is a learned behavior and that many of our choices are made without our knowledge. This cognitive tendency affects our lives in so many ways yet goes unnoticed almost every time. The idea that the halo effect, something so small, can affect major decisions as well as the way we interact with people in our lives leaves room for lots of issues.


For example, what studies may not be able to answer is whether there are deeper implications for race. Attractiveness cannot be mentioned without bringing up race because it is particular to culture. Within our society is tends to be associated with White (6). Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? And if so how does the halo affect work? If White is what is seen as beautiful in our society that would transpire to mean that the 5% getting paid more and getting promoted are whites and the students seen in the eye of the teachers as those "most likely to succeed" are also White. Based on the evidence put forth through the different experiments it can be said that the halo effect is less wrong and that people are treated differently because of their level of "attractiveness". Though beauty may be relative to one's own liking, within societal standards there lie implications and disparities because of race and this could be a next level to this experiment.



Further Reading on First Impressions

To read further into the ideas behind first impressions, see the sub-page listed below; First Impressions--How Important Are They?

First Impressions