The Halo Effect: Why We Often Judge a Book by its Cover

Halo effect

 

The halo effect causes our impression of someone in one area, to influence our opinion of that person in other areas. For example, if we think that someone is physically attractive, we often also assume that they have a more interesting personality, compared to what we would assume if they were unattractive.

 

Examples for the halo effect

The halo effect influences how we look at other people in various ways:

  • What people think about a woman’s personality is influenced by how much she weighs. In one study, participants saw a picture of a woman, together with a description of what she likes to do in life. One group received the original picture, while the other group received a picture where the woman wore padding, to make her look 50 pounds heavier. The participants rated the thinner woman as more attractive, as having a better personality, and as more likely to be successful at her career.
  • Men gave a higher rating to an essay when they thought that it was written by an attractive female author, compared to when they thought that it was written by an unattractive one.
  • When engaging with political discussion partners, people viewed attractive individuals as more knowledgeable and persuasive, and as better sources for political information.

Furthermore, the halo effect isn’t just limited to the way we look at people. It can also, for example, affect the way we look at products and brands, making it a key effect in marketing, especially when it comes to assessing brand equity. Specifically, this means that if you have a positive impression of a certain brand, you’re more likely to buy products from that brand, even if the positive impression is not directly related to the product at hand.

 

Why it influences us

The halo effect is essentially a type of confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes us to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Specifically in this case, being exposed to a single positive trait of an individual sometimes causes us to immediately form a positive impression of that person, even when we don’t know anything else about them. Then, in order to confirm our initial impression, we interpret other traits that that person has as positive too.

 

The horns effect

The horns effect is a similar effect, where encountering someone’s negative trait causes us to assume negative things about other aspects of that person.

For example, a study on classroom behavior found that when young kids behaved in a defiant manner, teachers were much more likely to rate them as being hyperactive and as having an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), even when that was not the case.

In the context of marketing, this means that if you have a negative impression of a certain brand, you’re less likely to buy its products, even when the negative impression is not directly related to them.

(In terms of terminology, the halo effect technically encompasses both positive and negative influence. Sometimes however, the halo effect is used to specify positive influence, while the horns effect is used to specify negative influence. This is why the horns effect is occasionally called a “reverse halo effect”, even though in practice both refer to the same type of confirmation bias.)

 

What the halo effect means for you

The halo effect influences how you see others. Remember this, and account for it both in terms of positive as well as negative influence. That is, just because someone has a single positive trait (e.g. physical attractiveness), doesn’t meant that you should immediately put them on a pedestal. Similarly, just because someone has a single negative trait, doesn’t mean you should immediately disregard them.

The halo effect also influences how others see you. You can take advantage of this, by realizing that your traits and behaviors in one area influence how other people perceive you in other areas.

For example, one study let students listen to an interview with a college professor who spoke English with a European accent. There were two groups of students, each of which saw a slightly different version of the interview. In one version the instructor was warm and friendly, while in the other version he was cold and distant. Students who saw the warm instructor rated his appearance, mannerisms, and accent as appealing, while students who saw the cold instructor rated the exact same attributes as irritating.

This is an example for how a simple change in behavior can completely change the way people perceive you, and for how you can take advantage of the halo effect.

 

Variability in the halo effect

Keep in mind that the halo effect is not a clear-cut, all-encompassing effect that always influences your thoughts in the same way.

For example, in the case of people rating essays based on the attractiveness of the purported author, the effect only appeared when a man thought that he was rating an essay written by a woman. In the case of women rating an essay by a woman, and men/women rating an essay by a man, the physical attractiveness of the author did not play a role in their rating. The same variability also appeared in other studies on the topic.

This is just a reminder that human psychology is complex, and that while effects and biases certainly play a role in how we think, not every decision that we make can be clearly attributed to them.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The halo effect causes our impression of someone in one area to influence our opinion of that person in other areas.
  • For example, if we think that someone is physically attractive, we often also assume that they have a more interesting personality, compared to what we would assume if they were unattractive.
  • This is a confirmation bias, which causes us to interpret information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Specifically, it means that once we form an initial impression of someone, we try to interpret their traits in a way that matches that impression.
  • The halo effect influences how you see other people, which you can account for by not immediately deifying or vilifying someone based on a single trait.
  • The halo effect also influences how others see you, which you can take advantage of by understanding that your behavior in one area will influence people’s perception of you overall.