Everything You Need To Know About The Halo Effect
Helen Lee Bouygues
Sept. 25, 2023
The notion that first impressions are irreversible and ever-lasting is ingrained in our culture. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” was even used as a tagline for a major shampoo brand throughout the 1980s. Why are first impressions so important and can they really make-or-break new opportunities? To answer these questions, understanding a cognitive bias known as the “halo effect” is key.
The halo effect occurs when an initial positive first impression unduly influences your opinion of that person as a whole. For example, celebrities are often very attractive people, so their fans often assume they are also smart, likable, or kind when they actually know very little about their real-life personalities. In many cases, the halo effect leads to irrational or biased perceptions that can determine the dynamic of personal and professional relationships.
This article will give you an overview of the halo effect, including its origins, examples, and how to overcome it.
Both sides are talking about the same proposed laws. Which side would you be more likely to support?
Oftentimes, we make decisions based on how information is presented, rather than the information itself. When that takes place, we may be falling prey to a cognitive bias called the framing effect.
What Is The Halo Effect?
The halo effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when a positive impression relating to a single attribute influences your impressions of other, unrelated attributes. Our feelings toward one attribute can color our perception of other attributes, or something as a whole.
This cognitive bias is perhaps most frequently mentioned as the reason why we often associate a person’s attractiveness with other characteristics like intelligence, good character, or business savvy. But it goes way beyond this phenomenon. The halo effect is seen in interpersonal relationships, workplaces, education, marketing, and even criminal prosecutions.
Even if you have never heard of the halo effect, this cognitive bias makes its way into virtually every circumstance we encounter. The reason? Assumptions. As human beings, we often make assumptions about unknown or ambiguous information, based on the things we do know about the situation. Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist, economist, and Nobel Prize winner, discussed this phenomenon in his famous book “Thinking Fast And Slow.”
Kahneman wrote that people often fill in information gaps with their unconscious associations. For example, consider the word fragments W_ _ H and S_ _ P. Kahneman found that people who were recently asked to think of an action that they’re ashamed of are more likely to complete the fragments as WASH and SOAP, and less likely to see WISH and SOUP. This experiment shows the extent to which our feelings and opinions influence our decisions.
Whether we like it or not, our unconscious assumptions, prejudices, and ideologies often make us the perfect prey of the halo effect. Some people might say that this is a force of nature, but much can be done by individuals to reduce or overcome this cognitive bias and, in the process, effectively improve our reasoning and decision-making.
Origins of the Halo Effect
In 1920, American psychologist Edward Thorndike introduced this phenomenon in his paper “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.” In the paper, Thorndike discussed a study where researchers asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate their subordinate soldiers based on a range of qualities, from intelligence to physique, leadership, and character.
In the experiment, Thorndike found that the ratings of each quality are very highly and evenly correlated. Why is this the case? He suggested that officers were not able to judge or rate each quality in independence from the others. Instead, the ratings were significantly influenced by how the officers felt about the individual soldiers as a whole. That is the so-called “constant error” in these evaluations – a “halo.”
Related Cognitive Biases
The Primacy Effect occurs when someone remembers information presented earlier better than information they received at a later date. Together with the halo effect, this cognitive bias can lead people to form more positive overall impressions of something when positive traits are presented ahead of negative traits, and vice versa. Empirical evidence about this cognitive bias also supports the common notion that first impressions are more important than subsequent impressions.
The Horn Effect is often known as the “reversed” halo effect. It occurs when one perceived negative trait leads people to form an unfavorable impression of someone or something as a whole. This bias is also sometimes called the “devil effect,” referencing the concept of a devil’s horns in contrast with the concept of an angel’s halo. A common example occurs when people assume an unattractive person must also be intellectually or morally inferior to someone they perceive as being more attractive.
The Framing Effect occurs when people make decisions based on how the information has been presented to them, rather than its substance. Businesses often use the framing effect and the halo effect to promote a positive brand image that boosts sales of their products or services.
Where the Halo Effect Occurs
The halo effect does not discriminate. It plays an influential role across occasions and settings. In this section, we will take a look at a few of the most common settings where this cognitive bias takes place.
When selling products or services, businesses often take advantage of customers’ cognitive biases such as the halo effect. In the case of the halo effect, businesses may present their product or service so that customers develop a general feeling of trust and positivity about their brand as a whole. Eventually, customers will develop a sense of “brand loyalty” which prompts them to choose products and services from the brand rather than its competitors. Research shows that companies that score high on “brand loyalty” and “customer loyalty” grow revenues roughly 2.5 times as fast as their industry peers.
This marketing technique is also present in news, politics, and public affairs. For example, political campaigns often build an image of a candidate on a specific positive quality – like their “folksy-ness,” or their business acumen. As a result, voters may then assume that the candidate is also knowledgeable about foreign affairs or the economy, and disregard evidence to the contrary.
Think back to a time when a loved one made a mistake or said something controversial. Often, we give loved ones the benefit of the doubt, chalking up their action to a bad day or a momentary lapse in judgment. But when a stranger acts similarly, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt. Is this judgment rational? Why do mistakes made by friends or loved ones appear more justifiable than those by strangers?
The answer is simple – we already have a positive overall perception of our friends and family. Because we simply view them more favorably in general, it makes forgiving their mistakes or wrongdoings easier. Although it is critical to approach this kind of situation with care and empathy, it’s a helpful thought exercise to consider the role of the halo effect in our relationships with others.
This phenomenon is also backed by academic research. In his book “Choices & Connections: An Introduction to Communication,” Steve McCornack, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wrote that a “positive gestalt” with someone can lead people to dismiss the significance of negative behaviors such as cheating on taxes.
The conditions of our employment often depend on how management perceives our performance. As Thorndike discussed in his paper, leaders can often base their evaluations on how they have perceived a single positive or negative trait of the employee.
This can impact companies to varying degrees. In Thorndike’s paper, he discussed how aviation officers rated aviation cadets or trainees. Due to the complex nature of operating aircraft, this occupation is highly specialized. And that’s why inaccurate ratings of a cadet’s technical ability can be detrimental. Alarmingly, however, the ratings show a significantly high correlation between the perceived general ability of officer work and his or her technical ability to fly. It was apparent a “halo” of general merit has extended to influence the ratings for technical ability. In high-stakes situations like this, it is even more important for organizations to be mindful of the influence of the halo effect and devise a plan to address it in evaluations.
A substantial body of research has demonstrated the potential correlation between how teachers perceive students and how they grade them. For instance, a 2016 study showed that the perceived attractiveness of female students leads to higher grades. According to the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, many teachers also assume well-behaved students are more “bright, diligent, and engaged” without objectively evaluating their abilities. These assumptions can even affect students’ grades in the long run.
Evaluations and assessments are integral parts of education, as effective teaching takes into consideration the progress and capabilities of individual students. That’s why it is crucial for teachers and school administrators to develop an awareness of the halo effect so that they can teach students in an unbiased manner.
Crime and Prosecution
Like everyone else, judges, prosecutors, and jurors are vulnerable to the halo effect, which often has long-lasting and high-stake consequences. One example is related to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the practice of developing philanthropic or charitable programs to fulfill the societal missions of corporations. Beyond the practice itself, CSR often contributes to positive perceptions of corporations, even in legal settings. A 2015 paper by The National Bureau of Economic Research showed that in past corruption sanctions, firms with higher CSR scores paid $2 million less in fines when accused of bribing foreign officials. Ultimately, researchers identified the halo effect as the prime factor that results in biased or unfair punishment of corporations with a positive brand image associated with social responsibility.
As demonstrated by this example, a positive overall perception of corporations can make jurors and prosecutors neglect or assign less significance to their illegal actions. In this context, the power of the halo effect is quite unsettling.
The Framing Effect and Critical Thinking
The halo effect often triggers in us a feeling of positivity and trust that seems too believable to call into question. The halo effect can mean a high degree of perceived charisma, trustworthiness, and goodness that is difficult to look past, but there are concrete steps you can take to combat this bias.
The first step is to find examples of the halo effect in our day-to-day lives. To do that, tune in to your feelings, opinions, and perceptions of people and things in your life. Do you almost always feel positive about someone or something, even when evidence suggests otherwise? Do you simply accept someone’s opinions without pausing to think? What are your routines for examining facts and evidence, and when do you fail to follow them?
Examine The Cause
After identifying where the bias occurs, ask yourself “Why?” Why did you form this perception of a person, product, or service? What do we find particularly appealing or favorable about them?
Maybe you trust a brand because your friends recommend it. Maybe you amplify the positive traits of a relationship because recognizing the negative aspects would mean facing conflicts and arguments. Identifying the causes as well as the psychological needs behind forming this cognitive bias is key to addressing it.
Now that we have identified the sources of our assumptions, it’s time to ask lots of “what-if” questions which can help form a more objective perception of the subject at hand. This will help you reconsider your long-standing beliefs, even those you deem fundamental. “How do I know something is reliable beyond how it was presented?” “What can research tell me about this product or service?” “What evidence shows that this person is worth hiring?” These questions can help you discover new and important perspectives that were previously neglected.
Moving forward, it is important to establish a routine that can help you make rational and objective judgments independent of your assumptions. It can be helpful to establish a fixed set of steps such as examining the sources of information, gathering facts and evidence, comparing subjects with similar profiles, and rethinking quick conclusions. With a pre-established roadmap, you can steer away from relying on our immediate feelings or reactions.
What would this look like in real life? Imagine you are a fifth-grade English teacher grading student essays. How might the halo effect may come into play?
First of all, you may want to consider – in general – which students you perceive positively and which you don’t. Then, it can be helpful to reflect on: What events or experiences contributed to these positive or negative impressions? Are these impressions related to their writing abilities?
These questions could help you remain aware of how your impressions might influence the grading process and keep you from objectively assessing the quality of the author’s writing ability. Any unfair assumptions about the students’ writing abilities might come into light, as a result of juxtaposing such evidence with pre-existing beliefs.
Finally, establishing a routine to actively avoid the halo effect can be instrumental. For instance, take 10 minutes before grading to reflect on your overall impressions of different students, and how they may influence your evaluation. Then, create clear guidelines for assessing student writing, perhaps even include a helpful activity such as comparing different essays with the same grades to look for inconsistencies in your grading. Finally, consider what surprised you or how you dodged the halo effect in evaluating specific students. A thoughtful routine like this can undoubtedly help you understand your biased tendencies and become more adept at identifying them over time.
The Halo Effect and Critical Thinking
The roadmap above outlines a set of concrete actions that anyone can take to address the halo effect. But to overcome any cognitive bias in the long run, it is important to understand what’s at the core of the solution – critical thinking.
The halo effect originates from our tendency to make assumptions, which is a cognitive shortcut taken to form quicker (although often unreliable) judgments. That’s why critical thinking is key to overcoming the halo effect. Critical thinking encourages careful analysis and evaluation of evidence before coming to a conclusion. This helps to continuously improve our thinking processes. This commitment to clear, logical, and disciplined thinking is what will help us avoid taking the shortcut of making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. That, ultimately, can help us prevent a wide array of cognitive biases, including the halo effect, from surfacing at all.
Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation