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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

You’re at work, and your boss asks your opinion about whether your co-worker, Dave, would be a good team leader for an upcoming project. You don’t know Dave well, but you consider Dave a tall and attractive person. So, you automatically say yes.

This is because your positive thoughts about Dave’s looks influence how you think of him in other positive terms. These include leadership and intelligence. You subconsciously form these opinions despite the fact you really don’t know if Dave would actually be a good team leader at all.

You’ve heard that first impressions count. The above example illustrates how the halo effect can work. It’s a psychology term that describes an error in reasoning based on one single trait you know of another person or thing.

This can work positively or negatively in another person’s favor, and it can apply to multiple situations. In a nutshell, a person’s perceived negative or positive trait creates a “halo” of an overall impression of that same person.

Read on to learn more about the halo effect to get a better understanding of how you form opinions about others. In turn, you may alter your thinking habits and make more informed decisions without passing ill-informed judgments on other people.

The term “halo effect” was coined in 1920 by Edward L. Thorndike, an American psychologist. It’s based on Thorndike’s observations of military officers during experiments that involved men “ranking” subordinates.

Before the officers even communicated with their subordinates, Thorndike had the superiors rank them based on character traits. These included leadership ability and intelligence.

Based on the results, Thorndike noted that positive and negative traits formed by the officers were based on unrelated traits that had to do with physical impressions.

For example, a tall and attractive subordinate was perceived as being the most intelligent. He was also ranked as overall “better” than the others. Thorndike found that physical appearances are the most influential in determining our overall impressions of another person’s character.

The theory

The overall basis of Thorndike’s theory is that people tend to create an overall impression of someone’s personality or characteristics based on one unrelated trait. This can result in either positive or negative perceptions. In either case, such subjective judgement can have negative consequences on your ability to think critically about the person’s other traits.

Thorndike’s work was elaborated on by another psychologist, Solomon Asch. He theorized that the way people form opinions, or adjectives, about others is highly reliant on first impression.

So, a positive first impression of someone could mean that you make positive assumptions about their skills and abilities. A negative first impression could mean you incorrectly assume that a person has negative qualities, such as laziness or apathy.

While the halo effect may be a new term to you, it’s present in just about every aspect of your daily life. These include situations involving:

  • people you find attractive
  • your workplace
  • school
  • how you respond to marketing campaigns
  • medicine and healthcare

Read below for more information about how the halo effect can come to play in each of these examples.

Since the halo effect is primarily based on first-impressions and physical appearance, it makes sense that the theory can influence our attractiveness to other people.

The exaggerated phrase, “love at first sight,” for example, often has to do with a positive physical appearance that can also make you believe other positive things about that person.

Imagine you’re at a coffee shop. Here, you see someone who’s dressed up and you find them physically attractive. You might assume they are smart, funny, and have a good work ethic.

You may see another person at the same coffee shop in workout gear. While they aren’t necessarily as put together as the first person you see, you might still assume positive traits about this stranger. You may think they are hardworking, fit, and happy.

The third person you come across in the coffee shop may have just woken up; their clothing is disheveled and their hair is pulled back. This could be a harder working person than the first individual, and maybe more fit and happier than the second. However, you might perceive them as lazy, unorganized, and apathetic.

The halo effect is regularly in effect at places of work, too. You might assume a formally dressed co-worker has a good work ethic. On the flipside, another co-worker in casual clothing might be judged as not having the same work ethic, though this could be completely untrue.

The same effects may be noted based on educational level. One classic study on a university level tested student perceptions on both a high-ranking professor and a guest lecturer. Based on these titles, the students made positive associations with the higher ranking academic that simply were not true, including a taller height.

The concepts of first impressions, identity, and familiarity can also fuel the halo effect in schools. For example, there’s some evidence that perceived attractiveness can lead to higher grades in school. However, other studies that show no such correlation.

Another example of has to do with higher academic achievement possibly being linked to name familiarity. In one classic study, teachers graded essays written by fifth graders. The teachers assigned higher grades to the essays by students with common, popular, and attractive first names versus essays by students with rare, unpopular, and unattractive names.

It’s no secret that marketers use extensive methods to manipulate us as consumers so that we buy their products or services. They can even use the halo effect.

For example, have you found that you’re more drawn to a product or service because your favorite celebrity “endorses” it? Your positive feelings about that celebrity can make you perceive everything that celebrity associates with as positive, too.

The way a brand labels and markets their products can also determine whether you like the end result. For example, a food study published in Food Research International labeled the same food products (yogurt, potato chips, juice) “organic” or “conventional.” The “organic” products received higher ratings overall, and consumers were willing to pay more them.

Unfortunately, the halo effect can also play out in the field of medicine. A physician, for example, might judge a patient based on appearances without conducting tests first.

It’s also possible to judge someone’s health based on first impression. For instance, you might associate a person who has a “healthy glow” as someone who is happy. This may or may not be the case.

You might incorrectly associate someone who is skinny as someone who has perfect health, or vice-versa. One review of studies goes as far as to say that “attractiveness suppresses the accurate recognition of health.”

Given the extent that the halo effect has in our lives, it can be difficult to distinguish biases from facts. You can actively work to decrease such subjective opinions by taking positive steps toward thinking more objectively about others.

Since the halo effect theorizes that people are quick to judge others based on first impressions, it’s helpful to slow down your thought process.

Earlier, we talked about your theoretical co-worker Dave and how your boss has asked you about his leadership capabilities. Rather than rushing to an answer, tell your boss to give you a day so you can fully process their proposal.

Then, you might consider talking to Dave to really see if he’d be a good team lead. Slowing down and gathering all the facts can help you prevent the potential harmful side effects of the halo effect.

We’ve all experienced the halo effect, where we judge another person —either correctly or incorrectly — based on a single attribute. Being conscious of this phenomenon can help you break such a subjective cycle.

Not only will you make more informed, objective decisions, but you’ll be a better person for it, too.