The halo effect occurs when your judgment of one feature of a thing affects your overall impression of it. For example, you LOVE Italy and Italians even though you have only spent one week in Rome ten years ago (which happened to be really fun).
Rather than making careful and deliberative evaluations of independent factors, you rate the person as, overall, amazing!
This is an implicit bias that people have when making evaluations. Like most heuristics, the halo effect is not intentional. It is usually the result of the natural tendency towards mental efficiency.
Examples of the halo effect can be seen in how you might consider an attractive person to be friendly, and how consumers judge the quality of products based upon just one product feature.
Definition of Halo Effect
Psychologist Edward Thorndike (1920) is usually credited with identifying the halo effect.
In a description of one of his earlier studies, he found that supervisors’ ratings of their employees:
…“were apparently affected by a marked tendency to think of the person in general as rather good or rather inferior and to color the judgments of the qualities by this general feeling” (p. 25).
The correlations of individual attributes were very high and even, across all items. This seemed unrealistic according to Thorndike. He also reported a similar pattern that was found in several studies conducted by different researchers in a variety of contexts. Thus, the halo effect was born.
Examples of Halo Effect
1. Young Love
In the beginning of a relationship everyone is on their best behavior. This can create a very favorable impression of the person we are dating. According to the halo effect, this can cloud our judgment of their behavior afterward.
If we were to be objective, we might find our partner’s actions to be unpleasant. However, since we have already formed a favorable view of them in the first few months of whirlwind dating, we might not notice the downsides as much, or maybe even not at all.
However, this halo effect can fade over time. Eventually, we might find their actions intolerable and terminate the relationship. They say that “love is blind”, but that’s just in the beginning.
2. Educational Background
We may assume someone would be an excellent employee or hard worker because they graduated form an ivy school university.
Graduating from a prestigious university is an impressive accomplishment. It takes a lot of hard work, in combination with advanced academic skills.
When meeting someone with such a high pedigree, most of us will interpret their subsequent behavior in favorable terms. Odd tendencies will be seen as the eccentric characteristics of those who are super intelligent. Nearly everything they do will be filtered through the knowledge of where they graduated.
At work their performance may be seen as better than it actually is. Supervisors may give them higher evaluation marks than they actually deserve. Although it is unfair to other employees, the halo effect is very robust and may be difficult to counteract.
3. Recommendation from a Trusted Source
If a friend or trusted colleague recommends someone to you, then you’re more inclined to overall feel positively about the recommended person.
Hiring a new employee is always a gamble. A lot of resumes look good and everyone is on their best behavior during an interview. After a while, all letters of recommendation begin to sound the same.
That is why receiving a recommendation from a trusted source, such as from a colleague or person you have known for a long time, can be very persuasive. An applicant with that advantage is much more likely to get the job.
So, when they are hired, they have another big advantage: it’s the halo effect. As soon as they walk in the door on the very first day of work they start out on the right foot. Everything they do will be filtered through a favorable lens. Even though their mistakes will be clearly seen by others, it may take a while for the person that hired them to be objective.
4. The Teacher’s Pet
The teacher’s pet is a student that is well-liked by the teacher. Because they’re friendly with the teacher, the teacher may have an overall positive impression of the student that may be reflected in their report card across all subjects of the curriculum.
This student receives regular praise and favoritism. If there is a special privilege, then the teacher’s pet will be the first to receive it.
In the eyes of other students, it seems as if there is nothing that student can do wrong. Their mistakes are glossed over and sometimes not even noticed. Whereas the teacher seems very capable of spotting the mistakes of everyone else.
Although it might appear that the teacher is doing all of this intentionally, the halo effect is actually more of an unconscious bias. The teacher is probably completely unaware of their favoritism.
5. The Halo Effects of Physical Attractiveness
The role of physical attractiveness in causing the halo effect has been very well-studied. Researchers have demonstrated that the level of attractiveness of a person can generate a halo effect in a wide range of scenarios.
For example, Hernandez-Julian and Peters (2017) identified a connection between student attractiveness and academic performance. Parrett (2015) found that attractive servers earned significantly more than unattractive servers. Attractiveness even has multiple effects in the legal system, some of which are described in detail here.
It seems that being attractive creates a positive affective state in others which can then influence their perceptions in a variety of ways. Of course, there are exceptions in some circumstances, but the research has shown consistent results for many years.
6. Reputation of a Brand
If a trusted brand releases a new product line, you will automatically assume the new product is great, regardless of whether it truly is.
A brand’s reputation is essential to its survival. Not only can it help maintain loyal a customer base, but it can also help when introducing new products.
Consumers that trust a particular brand will conclude that if one of its products is reliable and be of high quality, then other products from that brand will also be reliable and of high quality. That seems very logical, but may not always be the case.
Companies understand the halo effect quite well and will expend a tremendous amount of effort protecting their image and reputation. Once that image it tainted it can be very difficult to overcome. When that happens, the company will suffer from a negative halo. Sales will plummet across the board.
7. Bright and Cheery Employee
Cheery people might be assumed to have a wide range of positive traits, regardless of whether they do. For example, they may be more trusted at the workplace due to their cheeriness rather than any objective measure of trustworthiness.
People are social animals. Interacting with others is a big part of nearly every facet of our lives, including our work lives. Being around others that make us feel good will naturally make us have positive feelings towards them. Totally understandable.
People are also easily swayed by their feelings. So, when a supervisor has a stack of employee performance appraisal forms on their desk, those feelings can have a big impact on the evaluations.
The positive feeling they have for that staff member that is always bright and cheery will be activated instantaneously as soon as they read their name on the form. From then on, every rating they make will be heavily influenced by that positive emotion.
Even though that employee may not do very good work at all, each rating will be a few points higher than they actually deserve just because of the halo effect.
8. Celebrity Status
Celebrities are hired by brands to promote their products because the positive feelings people have for the celebrities can rub-off onto the product being sold. The brand leverages the celebrity’s halo effect.
Celebrities are very cautious about cultivating a certain image. They want the public to have a particular impression of them and they are very wary of anything that might alter that public perception.
Large corporations recognize the value of that public persona and will often hire a celebrity to endorse their product or be their spokesperson. If the celebrity has an image of being honest and trustworthy, then a company can boost sales many times over by hiring them to be in their commercials.
This is a clear example of the halo effect carrying over to a commercial product. It is a kind of “halo transfer” that can pay huge dividends.
9. First Impressions
“First impressions last forever.” That is an old saying that has been around for generations. As it turns out, it is also supported by a lot of modern-day research in the social sciences. What we think of a person after meeting them for the first time can sway our judgement for a long time afterwards.
No matter what the person does, our feelings will be filtered by our initial impression.
If that impression was positive, then we will interpret their subsequent behavior accordingly. Conversely, if that impression was negative, then even their positive actions later will be interpreted as negative. This is called the negative halo effect.
The first impression shape sour interpretation of their behavior from that point onward.
10. Parental Attitudes Towards Their Children
In the eyes of a parent, their child is perfect. They look at one positive trait of their child and will boast to all their friends about how smart and amazing their child is.
Of course, a parent’s positive bias is quite understandable.
When a toddler uses crayons to scribble all over the wall, the parents will see a future Picasso. A three-year old that likes to mix their food in a bowl with milk and orange juice, is a future chemist. Jumping up and down on the bed is just early training for Olympic gymnastics.
These scenarios are just the beginning of a halo effect that could last a lifetime. There may be no better example of the halo effect that the way a parent looks at their child.
11. Anchoring Bias
Sometimes, anchoring biases create a halo effect. An anchoring bias is a bias where your first impression affects all subsequent impressions.
An example of an anchoring bias is when you see one expensive product then a slightly less costly one next to it. That slightly cheaper product is still expensive, but you think it’s cheap because it’s next to a really expensive one!
But here’s when it plays into the halo effect.
When you first see something and you think it’s great, then that becomes your anchor. Your initial impression will cause a halo effect, and all subsequent interactions become influenced and filtered through this subjective and highly positive ‘anchoring point’.
Other Examples of Heuristics
- Availability Heuristic Examples
- Fundamental Attribution Error Examples
- Representativeness Heuristic Examples
First formally identified by Edward Thorndike more than one hundred years ago, the halo effect is still prevalent today. In fact, in the 21st century there are just more opportunities for it to flourish.
Although we usually think of the halo effect in terms of perpetuating a positive impression, there is such a thing as negative halo too. A negative first impression can be just as powerful as a favorable one. Either way, our thoughts about someone will be shaped by the halo effect.
We can see it shape our impressions of students, coworkers, and the image of a brand. It can even make us not see an unhealthy relationship until the evidence becomes overwhelming.
There is one thing for sure however: the halo effect will still be around in the 22nd century.
Bellé, N., Cantarelli, P., & Belardinelli, P. (2017). Cognitive biases in performance appraisal: Experimental evidence on anchoring and halo effects with public sector managers and employees. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 37(3), 275-294. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0734371X17704891
Hernandez-Julian R, & Peters C. (2017). Student appearance and academic performance. Journal of Human Capital,11(2), 247-262. doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/691698
Lucker, G. W., Beane, W. E., & Helmreich, R. L. (1981). The strength of the halo effect in physical attractiveness research. The Journal of Psychology, 107(1), 69-75. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00224540903365414
Rubie‐Davies, C. M. (2010). Teacher expectations and perceptions of student attributes: Is there a relationship? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), 121-135. doi: https://doi.org/10.1348/000709909X466334
Parrett M. (2015). Beauty and the feast: Examining the effect of beauty on earnings using restaurant tipping data. Journal of Economic Psychology, 49, 34-46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2015.04.002
Thorndike, E.L. (1920). A constant error in psychological ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 25-29.