Why do positive impressions produced in one area positively influence our opinions in another area?
Halo Effect, explained.
What is the Halo Effect?
The halo effect is a cognitive bias that claims that positive impressions of people, brands, and products in one area positively influence our feelings in another area.
Where this bias occurs
An example of the halo effect is when one assumes that a good-looking person in a photograph is also an overall good person. This error in judgment reflects one’s individual preferences, prejudices, ideology, and social perception.
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Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.
We can find this bias in all aspects of our life, from interactions at school and in the workplace, to responses to marketing campaigns. When the halo effect takes hold of our decision-making, it can hinder our ability to think critically about other peoples’ traits. As a result, we may mistakenly judge others unfairly and miss out on valuable opportunities.
Aside from its negative impact on our individual lives, the halo effect can add up to create systemic challenges. One example of this can be seen in the psychology behind consumerism. Studies have shown that when the same food products are labeled ‘organic’ and ‘conventional’, the ‘organic’ products receive higher ratings and consumers are willing to pay more for them.1 This demonstrates how consumers can be manipulated to spend more money than is necessary.
Why it happens
The halo effect occurs because human social perception is a constructive process. When we form impressions of others, we do not rely solely on objective information; instead, we actively construct an image that fits in with what we already know. Indeed, the fact that we sometimes judge another person’s personality based on that person’s physical attractiveness is quite surprising.
The Term ‘Halo’
The term "halo" alludes to the religious concept of a glowing circle crowning the heads of saints and bathing their faces in a heavenly light. In terms of the cognitive bias, the halo represents the positive light that we place upon people or things because of certain external characteristics. Because of their apparent halo-like qualities, we may be subject to overestimating the worth of people or things.
Role of Attractiveness
While there are a number of factors that can influence the halo effect, a person’s attractiveness is among the most common characteristics to produce cognitive bias. Physical attributes such as weight, hair, and eye color contribute to perceptions of attractiveness. Research has revealed that attractiveness may affect perceptions tied to life success and personality.2 This suggests that perceptions of attractiveness may influence a number of other traits, which provides evidence of the halo effect’s occurrence.
Why it is important
Having an awareness of the halo effect can help us understand how it affects our lives. Whether you are trying to evaluate another person, deciding which political candidate to vote for, or choosing which movie to watch, you should consider how your impressions of them might change your evaluations of their other characteristics. Though being aware of the halo effect does not eliminate the bias from our lives, it can certainly help to improve our objective decision-making abilities.
How to avoid it
While the halo effect may seem like an abstract concept that is hard to actively notice, there are many ways we can attempt to avoid the bias.
To minimize the influence of the bias, one can look to various cognitive debiasing techniques such as slowing down one’s reasoning process. For example, if you are aware of the halo effect, you can mitigate the effect of the bias by trying to create two possible impressions of people when you first meet them. Eventually, once you gain more information about the person, you will be able to choose which original impression was closest to how you have now come to see them.
The halo effect is not solely limited to the way we look at other people. It can also play a role in how we judge things such as products and brands. For example, if you have a positive impression of a certain brand, you will be more likely to buy products from that brand, even if your impression has no relation to the product’s quality. You should always consider the bias when purchasing products because the highest quality brand, or the best brand for you, may not be the most popular and heavily advertised.
The Horns Effect
Although we should maintain an awareness of the halo effect, we should also look out for when the bias works in reverse—a psychological process called the horns effect. This cognitive bias causes our negative impression of someone or something in one area to change our impression of them in other areas. For example, if someone does not like the way a product looks, they will not buy the product despite the potential benefit that it could bring them.
How it all started
The halo effect was first discovered by the American psychologist Edward Thorndike, who wrote about the cognitive bias in 1920.3 In a study that considered how bosses ranked their employees in the areas of intelligence, technical skill, and reliability, Thorndike found that the bosses tended to color their judgments of employees’ skill by their general feelings about the employees. In other words, the bosses based their technical assessments of employees on whether the employees seemed like good or bad people. Alongside other examples, Thorndike was able to conclude that people are unable to separate general assessments of attractiveness from numerous other characteristics. As a result, an error of judgment emerges that leads people to make false assessments about other people and things.
Notably, the term ‘halo effect’ did not appear until a 1938 paper by S. M. Harvey.4 In this paper, Harvey furthered research on the bias identified by Thorndike.
Example 1 - Diagnosing health problems
Unfortunately, a clear example of the halo effect is in the field of medicine. Physicians may sometimes fall into the trap of judging patients based on their appearance without conducting tests first. Additionally, in terms of mental health, the halo effect can also impact our judgment. We might associate someone with a ‘healthy glow’ as someone who is healthy. However, this person could be suffering from a mental illness that cannot be understood without additional conversation and testing. Indeed, some studies have gone so far as to suggest that “attractiveness suppresses the accurate recognition of health.”5
Example 2 - Assessment in school
Another example of the halo effect can be seen in education. There is some evidence to suggest that perceived attractiveness can lead to higher grades in school, although there is also evidence suggesting the contrary. Other research has linked name recognaition to higher grades in school. A study by H. Harari and J. W. McDavid predicted that teachers’ evaluations of children’s performance would be associated with stereotyped perceptions of the students’ first names. Short essays written by 5th-grade students were evaluated by teachers for the study. The names of the children, however, were replaced by some popular and ‘attractive’ names while others were replaced with rare and ‘unattractive’ names. Overall, the study found that the essays with names that were associated with positive stereotypes received the highest grades. This goes to show that even experienced teachers fall into the halo effect’s trap, leading their preconceived judgments to obscure their grading.
What it is
The halo effect occurs when our positive impressions of people, brands, and products in one area lead us to have positive feelings in another area. This cognitive bias leads us to often cast judgment without having a reason.
Why it happens
The halo effect occurs because human social perception is a constructive process. When we form impressions of others, we do not solely rely on objective information, but we actively construct an image that fits in with what we already know. As a result, our general perceptions of people and things skew our ability to make judgments on other characteristics.
Example #1 - Diagnosing health problems
One example of the halo effect can be found in the field of medicine. Doctors can sometimes assume a patient is healthy because that person appears ‘healthy.’ However, without additional tests, the doctor cannot know for sure that the patient is completely healthy.
Example #2 - Assessment in school
A second example of the halo effect can be seen in education. Research has shown that students with the most attractive physical qualities or the most attractive names receive the highest grades. Even when teachers are experienced, they may still fall into this cognitive trap.
How to avoid it
To minimize the likelihood that you will be influenced by the halo effect, you can look to various cognitive debiasing techniques such as slowing down your reasoning process. For example, you should try to develop two different perceptions of someone when you first meet them. Over time, you will be able to associate with one perception more than the other as you get to know the person.
This article considers how the halo effect can change consumer perception. When creating products, companies should keep in mind that the smallest attribute of a product can change consumers’ perceptions. Similarly, the halo effect can play a role at the brand level where consumers’ perceptions of a certain aspect of a company can lead them to buy more or fewer products.