Have you ever thought you could tell what a person was like just from a superficial impression of them? You might have been under the influence of the halo effect.
This term refers to a tendency of people to make global evaluations of people they don’t know based on specific perceived characteristics.
There are several ways in which the halo effect can distort our perception of others:
Physical attractiveness throws us off
The most obvious way the halo effect can influence our perceptions of others is that it can make us think that people who are physically attractive will also have attractive personalities. We tend to perceive them to be generally more successful or capable in their lives.
This psychological effect was first noted by Thorndike (1920) who conducted a study entitled “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings” on servicemen. In this study, he asked commanding officers to rate soldiers that they didn’t know on intelligence, physique, leadership and character.
The results of the study showed that the officers tended to make assumptions about soldiers based on unrelated characteristics. Specifically, if they rated officers as tall or attractive, they tended to rate them as intelligent or more capable soldiers!
Thorndike also noted that colleagues saw similar effects in other institutions. He mentions that superiors were rating teachers in a school in the very same way. At the same time, these ratings were affecting promotions and salaries for the teachers in question.
First impressions count
Another way the halo effect can influence us is that we tend to stereotype people based on a first impression of them. Solomon Asch conducted a study in 1946 in which he gave participants a list of adjectives about people. He ordered the adjectives either from positive to negative or from negative to positive, depending on the group the participants belonged to:
- Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious
- Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent
He found that when the first adjectives in the list were positive, the participants tended to rate the person positively. Similarly, if the first adjectives in the list were negative, the reverse would be true. This is an effect that is related to the halo effect called ‘the primacy effect’.
The primacy effect seems to occur as a result of our paying more attention to the information we get first. As a result, we tend to allow the information we get first to colour our perceptions of the information that we get later.
People’s impressions can be easily manipulated
As more studies on the halo effect were conducted, it became clear that this phenomenon was not as clear-cut as it might at first seem. It would be easy, for example, to assume that this psychological effect is as simple as ‘physical attractiveness makes us think people have positive characteristics’.
Well, no, it is more complicated than that: the way we rate physical attractiveness can be manipulated by other factors as well.
Nisbett and Wilson (1977) did a study with students where teachers presented themselves as warm or cold and gave presentations. Students were then asked to rate them in both their warm and cold guises. When the teachers were in their warm guise, the students rated them higher on physical attractiveness and other positive characteristics.
On the other hand, when they were acting coldly the students rated them negatively on physical attractiveness and a whole host of perceived traits.
Moreover, this study also found that the students making these ratings were completely unaware of how this manipulation of one characteristic was influencing their blanket evaluation of completely unrelated characteristics!
Marketing departments and politicians use the halo effect to their advantage
Two groups of people who are very interested in the halo effect are politicians and marketing departments. Since whether you buy a product or not or whether you vote for a politician or not can be so easily manipulated on so little information, it is easy to see why.
It is also pretty scary to think that people who are looking to profit from either your vote or how you spend your money can so easily sway your opinions. As we have already seen from the studies that psychologists have conducted on the halo effect, your global evaluation of a person can be influenced by physical attractiveness, an appearance or warmth, and even the order in which things are presented to you.
This makes the job of an advertiser or a politician very simple. This is why politicians, for example, needn’t talk about issues at all! All they need to do is appear well-dressed and friendly. You are more likely to make a decision based on how they appear than what they are saying. And they know it very well!
The halo effect impacts your whole life
We have seen that the halo effect makes you a terrible decision-maker in terms of who you choose to run the country or who you choose to listen to as your teacher or doctor. Apart from that, however, it is affecting how other people are judging you, too, on a daily basis.
People are making snap judgements about your capabilities and your whole personality based on superficial impressions of you all the time. This can have huge implications: how you dress, your speaking voice, or whether you are coming across as warm and gregarious could be affecting your likelihood of getting a promotion or the size of your salary.
Your boss or colleagues are probably making these judgements regardless of how good you are at your job. In fact, if somebody says something bad about you to someone who doesn’t know you, that could change their whole perception of you, based simply on the fact that they heard something bad about you before meeting you.
And worst of all…? – the people forming these impressions of you have no idea that they are doing it!
It is worth keeping in mind how much the halo effect can influence us from all of these perspectives.
The bottom line is that although sometimes we can judge people correctly on very little information, we really shouldn’t overestimate how good we are at making judgements.
From the outset, the first psychologist to conduct a study on this subject, Thorndike (1920), showed that people were making false evaluations of others based on this psychological phenomenon.
Later, Solomon Asch showed us that all they need to do to manipulate our impressions of something as positive or negative is to order positive and negative traits in a certain way. Nisbett and Wilson (1977) showed us that not only can we be easily manipulated, but we have absolutely no idea it is happening.
So next time you make an evaluation of somebody, whether it be a co-worker, a potential friend, or a potential leader for your country, try to make sure that you are making a decision about them for the right reasons. Or even better, try not to make any snap judgements without having solid evidence to support your views.
Do you think you have ever been affected by the halo effect, either in forming judgements of others or as regards how others have judged you? Tell us about your experience in the comment section.
- Griffin, A. M., & Langlois, J. H. (2006). Stereotype Directionality and Attractiveness Stereotyping: Is Beauty Good or is Ugly Bad?. Social cognition, 24(2), 187–206. doi:10.1521/soco.2006.24.2.187
- Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(4), 250-256 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
- Surawski, M.K. & Ossoff, E.P. (2006). The Effects of Physical and Vocal Attractiveness on Impression Formation of Politicians. Curr Psychol 25: 15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-006-1013-5
- Thorndike, E.L. (1920). A constant error in psychological ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25-29. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0071663
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