*This is the extended version of the article, if you are bored, or in a hurry, or you have to feed your dog, check the short version here. Halo effect
Think about Hugh Grant. He seems like a nice guy, always starring in romantic movies, he appears to be a romantic heart, a man every woman would want to have. You assume he must be a generous guy, a trustworthy loving husband who would be the perfect match for any woman. But the reality is quite different. Ηe cheated on his ex-wife, got arrested for assault, and generally, he has a not quite stable personal life, changing women, leaving babies, etc. (Source, The Telegraph) Reading that, you probably change your mind. You now believe he must be a horrible buy. Not quite right either. The reality is we don’t know. You can’t know. If you are not someone very close to him (a family member, a friend), you do not know that much about him so as to make assumptions accurately. We were making assumptions about his personality at the beginning of his career, based on his kind face and the roles he was playing. This is called the halo effect. On the contrary, after finding out about his personal life, we draw the opposite, negative conclusions about him, and this is called the horns effect.
What we believe
We tend to think that if someone seems kind or good-looking, he must also possess any number of positive attributes (good at their work, funny, intelligent, etc.). The same “rule” applies for products: if a company manufactures an amazing product, we think that this should also be the occasion for the other products of this company. When Apple released the iPod, and it became mainstream, the sales of all the other Apple products increased too. Affected by the iPod’s popularity, people automatically thought that the rest of the Apple products were good, too.
What is the reality
The truth is that we cannot reach a safe conclusion about someone’s personality judging by one characteristic only. We can’t infer what this person acts like, thinks like, depending on a single piece of -a lot of the times ambiguous- information. And I say ambiguous, because, in a brief meeting, it is too early to characterize someone as kind, rude, aggressive, or friendly. Their entire behavior during a short encounter might be a play, a façade. But even if someone is kind, this doesn’t mean anything about their other characteristics, like being charitable, generous, or offensive. The same goes for products and companies. If one product of a company is amazing, it doesn’t mean that all the other products that thισ company is going to release are going to be awesome too.
How it works
Halo effect is the tendency to make inferences from one trait of a person, a company, or product, about other traits of them. We use global characteristics, like how attractive someone is, to make conclusions about more specific characteristics, such as generosity or kindness. This works in two ways; the first is we tend to make good inferences from positive attributes (the halo effect), and the opposite, the horns effect, where a first negative impression about a person or product can lead to several negative estimations about that particular person or product. The physical attractiveness stereotype, a correct subcategory, suggests that physically people attractive can also have other good personality traits.
One way that the halo effect works is that we are profoundly affected by the first piece of information we receive (see also: anchoring effect). This first impression of a person or product affects our future actions and reactions with this person or product. This is because the first piece of information is what comes to mind easier, is simpler to remember. And once we have created the first impression, it requires some mental effort to change it, so we tend to stick with this first conclusion.
The term “halo effect” was first introduced in 1920 by Edward Thorndike. In an experiment, Thorndike tried to find a correlation between police officers’ professional traits and the evaluation they received by their superiors. He discovered that there is a strong relationship between the higher officers’ judgment and their subordinates’ most featured characteristics: for instance, if an officer appeared to be lazy, this could drag down his/her score to other aspects, too (uncooperative, ineffective, etc.).
A nice example of the halo effect and how it works is in politics. We tend to believe that politicians who are good speakers are actually good in public service too. A lot of people tend to vote for young politicians, tending to think that, because of their age, they have fresh ideas. But if you watch closely, you can see that, in reality, even a young politician’s opinion may not lean towards the innovative side. On the contrary, a lot of youth assume that politicians have the same mindset and may sometimes prove to be even more conservative than older ones.
To be more specific, on research by Carl L. Palmer and Rolfe D. Peterso (Beauty and the Pollster: The Impact of Halo Effects on Perceptions of Political Knowledge and Sophistication), it was shown that the candidates who were considered more familiar and attractive had more chances of being elected.
Similarly, imagine a person who got an economics degree from a top university, let’s say, from an Ivy League university. We tend to believe that this person might be a good CEO for a company. Of course, graduating from one of the best universities in the world is an indication of a person’s potential, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that this person could do a great job in this field. Maybe that person could excel in pursuing an academic career, but that doesn’t automatically make them a good CEO. The reality is that we are not sure, and we cannot make a safe estimation about it.
Finally, we can see the halo effect results in products. An excellent example is a general increase in Apple sales in 2005, due to the iPod. At that time, iPod was a revolutionary product in the music industry, and it was the dominant player in that field, resulting in Apple owning an incredible 73,9% share of the digital music industry. This lead to an increase in sales in the rest of the company’s products. Apple computer purchases had an increase of 68%. The halo effect here worked perfectly, people buying a product that they considered magnificent, and this created the notion that all Apple products were amazing, which in turn boosted their sales and strengthened the Apple brand. A similar thing happened with the iPhone, leading Apple on top for the last couple of years.
Halo effect in workplace
The Halo effect is found firmly in the workplace, and we can find it in multiple areas.
In big corporates, a lot of times we can see people getting promoted to leadership positions because they are good in a particular field. A sales person, for example, that finds new customers and continually increases sales, can be promoted to a managerial position. The problem here is that the good results in sales don’t necessarily mean that the particular person has the appropriate administrative and leading skills for a job with that characteristics.
Another field considers job tasks. When a person is good in an area, e.g., good at working with an Erp system, individuals in the company tend to believe that this person is good with any software that the firm works with. So the other employees ask the person’s help with the other software too, believing that he/she must be good with “this kind of stuff.”
Also if the results of a department are extraordinary, people tend to believe that all individuals in that department are superb at their jobs and the opposite. If a department is delaying in its deliverables and stuck in the workflow, people from other departments tend to believe that everyone in that department is not doing a good job.
In a study from David Landy and Harold Sigall (Beauty is talent: task evaluation as a function of the performer’s physical attractiveness 1974 ), 60 male undergraduates were put to evaluate the quality of essays with a variety of writing styles. In the essays, there were photos attached, depicting the writers. One-third of the pictures showed an attractive female, another third an unattractive female, and the last third included no attached photos. There were significant differences in the scoring of the essays. In the low-quality essays, the attractive writers received an average score of 5.2, the unattractive 2.7, and those without a photo 4.7. As we can see, the difference between the attractive and the unattractive score is almost double. On the high-quality essays, the difference was smaller but still, exits. The attractive received an average 6.7 rating, the unattractive 5.9 and those without photo 6.6 (practically the same score).
In another study (Earn M.G. 1974 The effect of physical appearance on the judgment of guilt, interpersonal attraction, and severity of recommended punishment in a simulated jury task ) students were shown two different videos of teachers giving a lecture. One group watched a teacher lecturing in a friendly and warm way; the other group was shown the same teacher in a more strict way. After that, the students were asked to judge the lecturers’ appearance, mannerisms, and accent. The first group of students rated the teacher as being warmer, with better manners and with a better accent that the second group. (The actual numbers are shown here, p 253-254 )
Finally, other researchers suggest that there is a bias in sentencing attractive/unattractive people; there is a tendency for more attractive people to have a better approach from judges. Also, there is a tendency for the judges to be softer when judging more attractive defendants, but when the offender is unattractive, there is a tendency for the judges to be harsher. (Harold Sigall and Nancy Strove, “Beautiful but dangerous: Effects of Offender Attractiveness and Nature of the Crime on Juridic Judgment” 1975 ).
You can find more on the subject here (, Richard A Kulka, Joan B. Kessler “Is Justice Really Blind? – The influence of Litigant Physical Attractiveness on Juridical Judgment” December 1978) and here ( Michael G. Efran “The effect f physical appearance on the judgment of guilt, interpersonal attraction, and severity of recommended punishment in a simulated jury task, June 1974)
How to avoid it
When you meet people, do not be too hasty to judge them, do not make estimations about the person’s character from that first acquaintance. Try to evaluate the aspects of the individual’s character you are most interested. Even for people you have previously met, try to figure out if you found evidence about their characters, or you simply made some deductions based on your first impressions.
Next time you vote, make a more thorough analysis of the candidates. What have they previously done? Are they able to deliver depending on their past? What is their program? Do you agree with their program? The fluency of speech and “clean face” should not be a factor concerning their other abilities.
As far as company products are concerned, when you decide to buy something, do research. Is this the product any good comparing to other brands? Volkswagen may have manufactured a fantastic model of a car, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the other cars it builds are good.
And always remember: do not judge a person by the way they look!!
How to gain from it
Know your good points as a person and try to show them. Try to make a good first impression to other people, to convince them more easily to see things from your point of view. This can give you points in a job interview, or in an important meeting. But pay attention, do not be an impostor, do not pretend to be someone you are not. Maybe in the short term, you will gain something, but on the long run, you will get caught, plus it is unethical.
Finally, if you are building a product or company, try to put on the front line the best of your goods and / or services, make a strong brand with them, and then try to sell your other products too. Of course, you should continue building amazing products, because even the halo effect can have an end, but if you keep doing a good job, you can create a snowball and on the long term reach much farther targets.