#11: The Halo Effect

#11: The Halo Effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias that pervades more of our day-to-day lives than we realise, or may like to admit. The halo effect can be defined as the tendency to use global evaluations to determine other specific and unrelated traits, particularly positively.

Essentially, because of this heuristic, our initial impression of a person, product, company or brand effects our interpretation of its character in its entirety. Due to one strong and salient good attribute they acquire a ‘halo’ of sorts and all else basks in its glow. The halo effect is a specific type of confirmation bias in that a general, intuitive, ‘good feeling’ pervades our subconscious and affects our interpretation of entirely unrelated facets and attributes.

First described by Edward Thorndike in the 1920’s, the halo effect has since been shown to have a demonstrably powerful influence in our judiciary, political elections, education systems, marketing and even personal health and well-being.

Historically it has largely been explored in relation to ‘the science of’ attraction. In one study male tutors marking university research papers were given a photo of either an attractive or unattractive female ‘author’ or no photo at all. For both a well-written and poorly written essay, the attractive female ‘author’ achieved significantly higher grades suggesting that we tend to give attractive people the benefit of the doubt more often and more willingly too.

It also affects our likelihood to have good jobs and earn well. After controlling for gender, age and weight it was found that American males that were 72 inches tall typically earned $5 525 more per month than someone with their same level of qualification and experience who was 65 inches tall. Women are more likely to earn more if they’re not obese, work out regularly, are blonde and wear make-up.

A famous study at the University of Minnesota showed participants three different photos: one of an attractive person, one of an unattractive person and one who looked, well, normal or ‘neutral’ as they describe it. They were then asked to hypothesise 27 specific personality traits (like altruism, stability, sexual promiscuity and trustworthiness). Additionally they were asked questions about their assumed lives: how happy they were, whether they were likely to get divorced, to have good jobs, if they’d be good parents to their children and their overall enjoyment of and satisfaction with life, for example. ‘Attractive’ people were overwhelming judged to have more positive personality traits and also assumed to be happier people, in happier marriages, better parents, with better, higher paying and more secure jobs.

From affecting our chances of academic and professional success to biasing election results, a 2010 study found that attractiveness and familiarity significantly influenced the likelihood of politicians being elected to office. By showing participants side-by-side photos of two US congressional candidates at a time, for just one second, participants had an above average degree of accuracy in determining whether or not they would get elected to office. Purely based on a one second ‘flash’ of their face. Further research has found that even when taking factual knowledge into account, candidates who were rated as more attractive and familiar were also rated to be more knowledgeable (and thereby better qualified for political office).

I mean, there’s no way Obama authorised more than ten times as many drone attacks as Bush (or dropped the equivalent of 3 bombs every hour, 24/7, increasing the number of civilian casualties in 2016), right? He’s such a cool guy!

Car manufacturers typically roll out one deluxe ‘halo’ vehicle in a range with added attention to detail, design and extra features which helps to sell the rest of the vehicles. When Apple released the iPod sales of other Apple products – like Macbooks – sky-rocketed even though none of their features had changed.

The halo effect also works in the negative, in the form of the so-called ‘horns’ or ‘devil’ effect. If I tend to dislike one particularly salient aspect about a person, product, company or brand I am likely to dislike more if not all.

It’s not necessarily your fault. We’ve been somewhat conditioned to think this way since we were children. Think of beautiful Cinderella, handsome Prince Charming and the “ugly stepsisters”. Simba and Scar. Tolkein’s elves and the orcs. Harry Potter and Dark Lord Voldemort. Batman and Bane, Two-face or the Joker. James Bond and Jaws. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Sausage Party’s Frank and The Douche. Django and Calvin Candie. Since childhood, and still today, we’ve been ‘conditioned’ to see good as beautiful, and ugly as bad.

And it’s useful too, it helps us forgive our loved ones more easily. It’s why “every little thing she does is magic”. Most importantly it helps to strengthen and retain the strong social bonds fundamental for personal well-being.

Interestingly enough, awareness of the halo effect doesn’t seem to do much in terms of limiting its presence or mitigating its powerful effects. Part of the reason for this is the nature of what Daniel Kahneman calls our ‘System 1’, the environment in which biases and heuristics thrive. System 1 largely operates, and is most potent, when we’re feeling ‘good’, when our minds don’t detect any sort of error or ‘threat’, or the need for overly active and critical thought. It is these ‘good feelings’ that the halo effect accentuates.

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Heather Scott

I work and write for Gravity Ideas, specialising in behavioural science, communication and African affairs.

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