What is the Halo Effect?

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halo effect

Social psychologists have long studied the ways people think about and interact with others, due to the fascinating ways our brains can affect our relationships. These researchers and theorists have found that humans have several patterns of thought that deviate away from rational or normal judgment, causing people to develop “subjective social realities” that distort their ability to analyze social situations clearly and accurately. These distortions are called cognitive biases and, if left unchecked, can make social interactions problematic. The Halo Effect is one of these cognitive biases, and it involves an inclination to link a particular positive characteristic to someone, and then assume that all of their other characteristics must also be equally positive or desirable.

Here’s an example. You have a favorite actor that you love watching in films or TV. They seem personable, funny, and are great in every show you’ve seen them in, and you seek out their work because you enjoy watching them. Now, you find out this actor has decided to run for a public office… Do you support them whole-heartedly without knowing whether or not they are qualified for this type of role? If you are experiencing the halo effect, you probably would support them without question. This cognitive bias arises when we already have a favorable impression of someone, and this leads us to assume that all of his or her other qualities must be equally positive. But, is it likely that this actor is the best person for the job? They could be! But if all the data you have to support this is that they are good on film, that may not be enough information to make an educated decision.

Researchers have found this bias to historically link external characteristics such as physical attractiveness to positive internal qualities; American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike studied this in the 1920’s and found that people tended to assume that more attractive people are happier, more successful, and healthier than those who they deem less physically attractive[2]. In addition to this, research has also found that this same bias toward physical attractiveness has been seen to cause people to suggest less blame or punishment for people deemed attractive than less attractive people who have done the same things! As such, it seems that the halo effect is a problematic assumption that can showcase a person’s prejudices based on social preference.

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So, what are the long-term consequences of the halo effect? Well, let’s use the example from the first paragraph as an example. If everyone who loved your favorite actor was experiencing the same halo effect and assumed, because they were a great actor…and probably physically attractive, that this person would make a great politician, it’s likely that they could get elected without demonstrating the expertise or knowledge to do the job well. The results of this could lead to an inefficient politician that could negatively impact the overall wellness of the people and the city, town, or country that they are serving. Halo effect can also showcase inherent biases related to social status, race, religion, and other cultural considerations that can affect a person’s ability to be considered for a job opportunity, or the perception of innocence during a trial, or anything in between.

While the halo effect shows that cognitive biases can create a lot of problems, this is a way to use the halo effect to your advantage! Since now you know that people are more likely to provide opportunities or leniency to those they deem attractive or “put together”, this can help you get a leg up in the world! Being mindful about staying organized, orderly, groomed, and timely can eliminate the ability for people to develop negative assumptions about yourself as a whole and can help them to create positive associations about your work ethic, character, and personality! While this doesn’t mean that you need to be wearing designer suits to work, or driving expensive cars, it does mean that focusing on presenting yourself in a healthy and positive way can help others to see you that way too.

Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events