The Halo Effect (Definition + Examples)

Here’s a bit of classic advice: it’s important to make a good first impression. You might know from personal experience that a good first impression makes just as much of an impact as a bad first impression. 

Why? The Halo Effect. I’m not talking about the video game – think of the halos that sit above religious figures in paintings.

What Is the Halo Effect?

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that affects our judgement of a person’s character. The halo bathes the entire body of the person in a bright light, making them look almost perfect. If we discover one thing that we like about a person, The Halo Effect casts a “halo” on other parts of their personality.

The Halo Effect is just one of many unconscious biases that sway the way we make decisions. 

Examples of the Halo Effect

Etiquette

You may meet someone and immediately think that they have good manners or dress well. The Halo Effect tells you that they have a long list of good traits: they are smart, funny, kind, trustworthy, etc. You may not know a thing about the person’s sense of humor or trustworthiness, but that “halo” of a good first impression leads you to think that they are a generally good person. 

Attractiveness

The Halo Effect is often discussed when it comes to physical attractiveness. If we see a person that we think is physically attractive, we are likely to think that they have other attractive traits: a good sense of humor, kindness, etc. 

But the Halo Effect doesn’t just start with physical attractiveness. We may see someone that is not particularly attractive but be influenced by the way they hold themselves, their handshake, their politeness, etc. In one study of The Halo Effect, the “halo” was a student’s name. Teachers were more likely to grade papers higher if the student’s name was “more attractive” or common. 

Celebrity Status

One quick example of the Halo Effect is the way we make judgements about products advertised on TV or social media. Why do you think celebrities are hired to endorse products? We like celebrities. Based on their talent, attractiveness, or other characteristics, the Halo Effect may tell us that our favorite celebrity is also honest, trustworthy, and smart. Therefore, they must be endorsing high-quality products, right? 

Well, not necessarily. But The Halo Effect gets in the way when we are watching commercials with beautiful models or lovable celebrities.

Who Discovered the Halo Effect?

Research on this effect has been going on for decades. The term “The Halo Effect” was actually first used in 1920. Edwin Thorndike was a psychologist whose work set the foundation for behaviorism and theories on conditioning. His paper, “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings,” first described his studies on the Halo Effect. 

Thorndike’s first experiments on the Halo Effect asked military commanders to rate officers on a range of characteristics, including leadership and physical appearance. He noticed that when commanders rated the officers highly on one trait, they were more likely to rate them higher on the other characteristics. 

Since Thorndike’s initial experiments, researchers have conducted additional studies and found that The Halo Effect impacts everyone in a lot of ways. From marketing to medicine, The Halo Effect can seriously skew our judgement one way or another. 

In one set of studies, researchers said that “the ‘attractiveness halo effect’ in which desired personality traits are ascribed to attractive people over unattractive people seems to influence the use of attractiveness as a cue when attempting to accurately perceive health or intelligence in faces and is in turn, limiting people’s accuracy.” 

Basically, if someone is attractive, we are more likely to think that they are smart or have good health. These impressions and assumptions may prevent us from accurately seeing or measuring these other traits. Doctors, for example, may be more likely to think that someone is “healthy” based on their level of attractiveness. And with a long list of invisible illnesses, this cognitive bias could be a detriment to someone’s health. 

The studies went on to say that this bias could lead to unrealistic expectations in academic performance, which can be good or bad. The students who were expected to succeed due to other traits may end up succeeding due to the expectations placed on them. (Watch my video on The Pygmalion Effect for more information on how this works.) 

What Causes The Halo Effect? 

Leadership and physical appearance are two very different traits. You don’t have to be built well to be a good leader. You don’t have to be smart to be attractive. You don’t have to be a good leader to be a trustworthy person. And yet, a single trait like physical appearance can influence how we feel about the person’s other, irrelevant, traits. 

Why? 

We like things to be simple. Or rather, our brains like things to be simple. It’s easier to think of someone as a “good person” or a “bad person” rather than recognize all of the complexities that go into each individual person’s personality. It’s easier to think someone has a long list of good qualities than a mixed bag of good, not-so-good, and changing qualities. 

How to Avoid Halo Effect

As we get to know someone, our impressions of them may change. But The Halo Effect primarily deals with quick judgments and first impressions. By being aware of the Halo Effect and other ways that our brain makes decisions about people, we can make more rational judgements about people from the moment we meet them. 

Knowing about The Halo Effect can help you make better decisions whether you are watching a commercial or making judgements about a person that you see on the subway. But it can also help you make a better impression on others and understand what is going on in their heads. By making a good impression on others through your winning smile, dominant body language, or smart dress, you can win people over and help them trust you. 

Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.