A specific type of cognitive bias in which one aspect of a person, brand, product, or institution affects one's thoughts or judgment of the entity's other aspects or dimensions. The term was coined by Edward Thorndike.
The term is derived from the halos painted or sculpted above the heads of Christ or the saints in traditional Christian iconography, the halo being an indication that the person so depicted possessed outstanding virtues and should, therefore, be regarded as a model of godly living. There is also a negative form of the halo effect variously called the horns effect, devil effect, or reverse halo effect, in which the observer allows one unfavorable or disliked trait or aspect of a person (or product) to influence his or her global opinion of the person in a negative direction.
Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) was the first to provide an empirical demonstration of the existence of the halo effect as well as to name it. In 1920 he published a journal article titled “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings,” in which he asked commanding officers in the U.S. Army to rate their soldiers in regard to physical, intellectual, personal, and leadership qualities.
Thorndike found that there was a high correlation within the commanders’ ratings of any given soldier; that is, if they rated a given soldier highly in terms of leadership potential (for example), they were likely to carry over that favorable evaluation to his other qualities. The same high level of correlation appeared in regard to soldiers who were rated as deficient in some respect. In Thorndike's words, “Ratings 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.” Thorndike also identified the halo effect in workplace evaluations of industrial workers by their supervisors.
Psychologists after Thorndike have observed the halo effect in a range of different social settings and institutions, and advertisers have made use of it in product branding and placement.
A number of studies conducted since the 1970s have reported that attractiveness—particularly physical— has a notable halo effect. Persons considered physically attractive are generally judged to be friendlier, more companionable, more competent, and more successful than people considered “just average” in appearance or physically unattractive. Obesity is considered particularly physically unattractive, with overweight people frequently stigmatized as lazy, stupid, uneducated, and generally lacking in positive character traits as well as being “ugly.”
On the other side of the halo effect, it is interesting how many personal profiles on dating websites will often mention a single isolated physical, behavioral, or personality trait as a deal breaker, such as “no brunettes” or “no Red Sox fans” or “vegetarians only.” This pattern indicates that the horns effect can be just as strong as the halo effect.
Other psychological studies have shown that the halo effect is strong in the academic and business communities as well as in friendship and dating situations. This observation holds true even among people who consider themselves aware of the halo effect. A classic 1977 study by Richard Nisbett (1941–) and Timothy Wilson demonstrated that students’ global evaluations of an instructor affected their evaluations of his individual attributes. In the experiment, the instructor spoke with a European accent. He acted friendly and approachable to one group of subjects while behaving in a cold and impersonal manner toward the students in the other group. The students in the first group rated the lecturer's accent and mannerisms as interesting and appealing, while the students in the second group saw them as irritating. The authors concluded, “Results indicate that global evaluations of a person can induce altered evaluations of the person's attributes, even when there is sufficient information to allow for independent assessments of them.”
A follow-up study carried out in 1981 by Wilson and two other colleagues reported that even when students were told in advance “specifically what the halo effect was,” they were unable to escape it. “Despite these attempts to eliminate the halo effect (or, at a minimum, to make people aware of it), the results indicated that subjects in all conditions were very susceptible to it.”
The same pattern holds true in the job market. Studies of corporate hiring practices have shown that a candidate's initial impression on the interviewer tends to carry over to the rest of the interview, leading to the common advice to job seekers to remember that “first impressions are lasting.” Most articles about preparing for a job interview remind the reader to dress appropriately; smile; maintain appropriate eye contact with the interviewer; and generally convey an impression of competence, enthusiasm, and warmth in order to make as good a first impression as possible.
The halo effect is well known to both prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases. Studies have shown that juries are more likely to recommend leniency in sentencing when a convicted defendant is physically attractive and/or well educated. It is thought that jurors are more likely to regard the person as more likely to “go straight” after time served because their attractiveness and intelligence will enable them to have a successful future when they are released.
Another form of the halo effect is the common practice of defense attorneys to have the defendant as neatly and attractively dressed as possible, especially when the crime committed was particularly brutal. In one recent case, a teenager who had murdered her mother after a quarrel about the daughter's boyfriend appeared in court in childlike pastel sweaters, kneehigh stockings, and pleated skirts, all to make her look as demure and innocent as possible. The jury, however, overcame the halo effect in this instance and still rendered a guilty verdict.
Advertisers have made use of the halo effect to sell products or to place them to appeal to specific groups of people. The most familiar example is the celebrity endorsement, in which a well-known film star, athlete, or model recommends the product, which may be anything from a beverage or food item to an article of clothing or accessory. The advertiser's choice of the spokesperson for the product is typically influenced by the intended market for the product; athletes are often chosen for products with mass-market appeal, while exotic or haughty-looking male or female models are selected to endorse “upmarket” or luxury goods.
The flip side of celebrity endorsements, however, is the frequent decision on the part of a company to jettison their celebrity or spokesperson as soon as possible if the celebrity is accused of a crime or any behavior considered scandalous. Recent examples include the firing of a Subway spokesperson accused of a paraphilia, and the decisions of Coco-Cola and several other companies to withdraw their endorsement contracts with Michael Vick after his involvement with illegal dog fighting became known.
Some writers in the field of hiring practices (whether academic or business-related) have suggested the following steps to counteract the halo effect:
See also Cognitive bias; Thorndike, Edward.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Rosenzweig, Philip M. The Halo Effect—and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers. New York: The Free Press, 2007.
Rosenzweig, Philip. “The Halo Effect, and Other Managerial Delusions.” McKinsey Quarterly 43 (February 2007). Available online at http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/the_halo_effect_and_other_managerial_delusions .
Thorndike, E.L. “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.” Journal of Applied Psychology 4 (March 1920): 25–29.
Wetzel, C.G., T.D. Wilson, and J. Kort. “The Halo Effect Revisited: Forewarned Is Not Forearmed.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 17 (July 1981): 427–439.
Zebrowitz, L.A., and R.G. Franklin, Jr. “The Attractiveness Halo Effect and the Babyface Stereotype in Older and Younger Adults: Similarities, Own-age Accentuation, and Older Adult Positivity Effects.” Experimental Aging Research 40 (March 2014): 375–393.
ClearFit. “The Halo Effect: The Trap That Makes You Hire the Wrong Person.” http://www.clearfit.com/blog/thehalo-effect/ (accessed September 1, 2015).
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American Psychological Association (APA), 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC, 20002-4242, (202) 336-5500, (800) 374-2721, http://www.apa.org/ .