In India, there's a phrase "Sharma ji’s beta" [translates to Mr.Sharma’s son] that's commonly used to denote that "perfect kid living next door” who aces their exams and is therefore loved by all. They are considered the epitome of perfection in the eyes of the neighbourhood elders. If there's mischief in the colony, no one would even think of blaming Sharma ji's beta. Why? The kid studies well! It's the classic halo effect at play. Even if he was the actual mastermind behind all the pranks in our streets, the adults would tell themselves, "Not Sharma ji's beta, he's such a good student!" It's funny how a bunch of A's on paper can turn you into an angel in everyone's eyes, even when all of us kids knew who was really stirring up trouble.
What is the Halo Effect?
The Halo Effect, a cognitive bias due to which the perception about a single characteristic influences our judgment of other unrelated characteristics. Impressions of brands, products and people in one area positively impact how we feel about them in another area.
The effect was first coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920. In his study he asked commanding officers to rate subordinates on intelligence, leadership, character and physique without ever having met them. Thorndike found that subordinates who were taller and more attractive were also rated as more intelligent, better soldiers. It appeared that people generalised one superior trait to create a favourable view of someone’s entire personality.
This phenomenon occurs when our overall impression of a person or entity influences our evaluation of specific traits, regardless of the evidence supporting those traits. In other words, the Halo Effect suggests that our initial positive impression of something can cast a "halo" over our perception, blurring our ability to critically assess individual attributes. This cognitive bias permeates various aspects of life, from interpersonal relationships to the realms of business and branding.
The Psychology Behind the Halo Effect
At its core, the Halo Effect is deeply rooted in the human tendency to simplify complex judgments. When we encounter someone or something we find appealing, our minds seek cognitive shortcuts, leading us to generalize positive qualities across the board. This mental efficiency can serve as a heuristic in daily decision-making but can also introduce significant biases when our assessments lack nuance and objectivity.
Where is the Halo effect seen in action?
In Personal Interactions
In social settings, the Halo Effect often manifests in our perceptions of physical attractiveness, charisma, or overall likability. For instance, an individual who possesses an attractive appearance may be assumed to have positive qualities such as intelligence or kindness, even in the absence of direct evidence. This effect can also lead to another mental shortcut- the confirmation bias (link the article). Halo effect affects our initial impressions and then confirmation bias makes them last longer.
In the workplace
Unfortunately halo effect can play a major role in the workspace. We often associate people who’ve been educated at a fancier college like an Ivy league to be better than others from not-so-famous colleges. If someone dresses up well for work everyday they are considered more competent though their fashion sense has nothing to do with their work ethic. Research shows that attractiveness, race and gender all impact the likelihood of negative or positive work evaluations. A 2019 paper found that in service professions (Restaurants or hotel consumer service) conventionally attractive staff were rated higher by consumers compared to other employees. The halo effect is quite pervasive and can create inequality in various domains where external factors are considered more than actual merit.
In Marketing and Branding
Marketers consciously leverage the Halo Effect to build brand equity. Through strategic branding, advertising, and public relations efforts, companies aim to create a positive overall perception that can extend to their products or services. This positive halo can influence consumer preferences, fostering loyalty and trust.
Sometimes doctors may fall for assessing the patients health based on their appearance before conducting tests. There are often “Invisible disorders”- mental health conditions or even autoimmune disorders in which the patients don’t really come across as prototypically “looking ill”. There are studies which have suggested that attractiveness often reduces accurate recognition of the health of an individual.
A study in 1974 revealed that more conventionally attractive criminals were likelier to receive relatively lenient penalties compared to their unattractive counterparts for similar crimes. Another investigation in 1975 revealed a more nuanced perspective. In the experiment there were 2 scenarios: a) Hypothetical burglary and b)Hypothetical con job. The former involved a woman stealing $2200 and the latter involved a woman fooling a man into investing $2200 into a company that didn’t exist. For the burglary (which is a crime unrelated to the criminals attractiveness), the more attractive woman was given a lesser sentence. Whereas, for the con job (where the crime is related to the criminals charisma and attractiveness), the more attractive woman was given a harsher sentence. So if the nature of the crime involves the criminal using their attractive features, the leniency is reversed.
Mitigating the Impact of the Halo Effect
Recognising the existence of the Halo Effect is the first step toward mitigating its potential negative consequences. Employing critical thinking and separating our overall impression from specific attributes can help us make more informed decisions. In business, leaders can encourage a culture of objective evaluation, emphasising the importance of evidence-based assessments rather than relying solely on reputation.
“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” - Age old Idiom
The Halo Effect serves as a reminder of the intricate ways in which our minds simplify and navigate the complexities of daily life. While it streamlines decision-making, it also underscores the importance of cultivating awareness and objectivity in our judgments. Whether in personal interactions, business decisions, or marketing strategies, understanding the Halo Effect empowers us to navigate a more nuanced and informed path, free from the biases that can cloud our perceptions.