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Why the Halo Effect Affects How We Perceive Others

By Ayesh Perera, published March 22, 2021


Take-home Messages
  • The halo effect, also referred to as the halo error, is a type of cognitive bias whereby our perception of someone is positively influenced by our opinions of that person’s other related traits.
  • The American psychologist Edward Thorndike first recognized the halo effect with empirical evidence in 1920 in his article, A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.
  • The halo effect can shape our perception of others’ intelligence and competence, and its influence can be seen in many settings ranging from the classroom to the courthouse.
  • An example of the halo effect is the attractiveness stereotype, which refers to the tendency to assign positive qualities and traits to physically attractive people. People often tend to judge attractive individuals to have higher morality, better mental health, and greater intelligence. This cognitive error in judgment reflects one's individual prejudices, ideology, and social perception.
  • The reverse halo effect is the phenomenon whereby positive perceptions of a person can yield negative consequences.
  • The horn effect, which is closely tied to the halo effect, is the cognitive bias whereby one’s opinion of another is unduly shaped by a single negative trait.

What is the Halo Effect?

The halo effect refers to the tendency to allow one specific trait or our overall impression of a person, company or product to positively influence our judgment of their other related traits.

The halo effect is a cognitive attribution bias as it involves the unfounded application of general judgment to a specific trait (Bethel, 2010; Ries, 2006). For example, if you perceived a person to be warm and friendly, we will attribute a number of other associated traits to that person without any knowledge that they are true, such as they are generous.

The word ‘halo’ stems from a religious concept. It refers to a circle of light which is placed above or around the head of a holy person or saint in order to honor his or her sanctity. Countless paintings from the Middle Ages as well as the Renaissance period depict notable men and women with the heavenly light of the halo.

These paintings, in effect, lead the observer to form favorable judgments about their participants. Likewise, according to the psychological concept of ‘the halo effect,’ one patent attribute of a certain person leads an observer to draw a generalizing conclusion about that person (Ellis, 2018).

A single positive quality of a person may induce a positive predisposition toward every aspect of that person while one negative attribute of that person may induce an overall negative impression of that person.

While the former which works in the positive direction is the halo effect, the latter which works in the negative direction, as we would discuss later, is called the horn effect.


Examples of the Halo Effect

In the Classroom

In the classroom, teachers are prone to the halo effect error when evaluating their students. For example, a teacher might assume that a well-behaved student is also bright and motivated before they have objectively evaluated the student's capacity in these areas.

A research study conducted in 1968 by Rosenthal and Jacobson discovered that teachers generally develop expectations for their students based not merely on the school record but also on their physical appearance.

In the experiment, the teachers were provided with objective information such as a child’s academic potential along with a photo of an attractive or unattractive girl or boy. The results indicated that the teachers’ expectations concerning the child’s academic future were significantly associated with the child’s attractiveness.

Another more recent study compared the influence of attractiveness on grading in university courses wherein the instructors either could or could not observe the appearance of their students (Hernandez-Julian & Peters, 2017).

The results indicated that appearance could impact grading in traditional classrooms; the students whose attractiveness was rated as above average procured significantly lower grades in on-line classes wherein the instructors could not observe the appearance of the students.

In the Workplace

A study by Parrett (2015) examined the impact of beauty on earnings based on the tipping data of restaurants in Virginia. He discovered that more attractive servers earned in tips nearly $1261 more annually than their unattractive counterparts.

The primary explanation stemmed from female customers’ tipping the better-looking females more than they did the unattractive females. The customer taste-based discrimination herein mattered more for females than for males.

Moreover, an investigation into educational attainment and self-evaluations as mediating mechanisms for the impact of attractiveness and intelligence on financial strain and income seemed to indicate that physical attractiveness could impact income both directly and indirectly (Judge, Hurst & Simon, 2009).

Academics and Intelligence

A study conducted by Landy and Sigall (1974) demonstrated the impact of the halo effect upon male judgments of female academic competence. In their experiment, 60 male undergraduate students were asked to evaluate an essay supposedly written by a first-year female college student.

The male undergraduates had to assess the quality of the prose and the competence of the writer on a number of dimensions. The essays included both poorly written samples and well-written versions. Of the 60 male participants, 20 were given a photo of an unattractive female as an author, another 20 were given a photo of an attractive female as author, and the final 20 were provided no photos.

Moreover, while 30 of the participants read the well-written version, the other 30 read the poorly written sample. The results showed that the participants had evaluated the writer least favorably when she was unattractive and most favorably when she was attractive.

Furthermore, the effect of the writer’s attractiveness on the assessment of her writing was most salient when the objective quality of the essay was poor. These results seemed to imply that that the male readers were more inclined to tolerate poor performance by attractive females than by unattractive females.

A more recent study examined residual cues to intelligence in male and female faces while also seeking to control for attractiveness associated with the halo effect (Moore, Filippou & Perrett, 2011).

Out of over 300 photos of British college students, pictures of high-intelligence composite faces were created from the photos rated the highest in perceived intelligence, and pictures of low-intelligence composite from the photos rated the lowest in perceived intelligence.

Then each group of photos was further divided into male and female faces. The participants of the study, which comprised 92 males and 164 females, were to rate the composite faces for attractiveness and intelligence. For the male composites, the high-perceived intelligence group was rated as notably more attractive than their low-perceived intelligence counter parts.

Moreover, the attractive male faces were also perceived to be friendlier and funnier by women as well as men. The results seemed to indicate that intelligence might be a crucial component of attractiveness in male faces.

On Sentencing for Crimes

A study by Michael G. Efran which examined the effects of physical attractiveness on the judgment of culpability and the severity of the sentences recommended for criminals discovered that attractive criminals were likely to receive more lenient penalties than unattractive ones for the same crime (Efran, 1974).

According to the study, the societal perception which holds that more attractive individuals have better prospects for the future than less attractive individuals supposedly accounted for this discrepancy.

Another study on the same topic by Sigall and Ostrove, however, demonstrated more nuanced evidence (Sigall & Ostrove, 1975). The experiment evaluated a hypothetical burglary and a hypothetical swindle. While the former involved a woman unlawfully procuring a key and embezzling $2200, the latter involved a woman inveigling a man to invest $2200 in a corporation that did not exist.

In the burglary (which was not related to the attractiveness of the criminal), the attractive defendant received a more lenient sentence than the unattractive one. However, in the swindle (wherein the crime was connected to the criminal’s attractiveness), the attractive defendant received the more severe sentence.

The results seemed to suggest that the customary leniency given to the more attractive criminal was reversed or negated when the nature of the offense involved the criminal’s attractiveness.

The History of the Halo Effect

The American psychologist Frederick L. Wells (1907) first identified the halo effect in a study of ratings of the literary merit of authors.

However, it was Edward Thorndike who first recognized it with empirical evidence. Thorndike was an early behaviorist who delved into the psychology of learning. He officially introduced the term ‘the halo error’ in 1920 in his article, “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”.

Thorndike described the halo effect as the cognitive bias whereby one aspect of a person shapes one’s opinions of the other dimensions and features of that person. Although Thorndike initially employed the term only to refer to people, subsequently, its use has been expanded even to the spheres of marketing.

In A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings, Thorndike (1920) sought to pin down this cognitive bias via replication. In the experiment for the study, he would ask two commanding officers in the military to assess their soldiers based on their intellect, physical qualities (such as voice, physique, energy, neatness and bearing), leadership skills, and personal qualities (such as loyalty, selflessness, cooperation and dependability).

The bias which he thought characterized the ratings was confirmed. Thorndike discovered that a person’s attractiveness significantly influenced how that person’s other attributes were assessed. His study demonstrated notable correlations; the correlation for physique with character was .28, for physique with intelligence was .31, and for physique with leadership was .39.

The ratings were seemingly impacted by a marked tendency to view a person in general as either good or bad, and then to jump to conclusions concerning other qualities of that person. These conclusions were based on the initial impression of, or the general feeling concerning the relevant individuals.

For instance, the ratings on one special attribute of an officer would often begin a trend in the ratings in the direction of the perceived special attribute; a positive trait would engender a positive trend, and a negative trait a negative trend.

The final results for a particular soldier would invariably correlate with the rest of the results regardless of whether the special attribute was positive or negative.


The Reverse Halo Effect

The reverse halo effect refers to the phenomenon whereby positive perceptions of a person can yield negative consequences (Edward, 2004). Errors in rating may engender issues of validity and reliability.

On the other hand, alterations in ratings may, in fact, reflect actual transformations in behavior—thereby signaling a mere appearance of compromised reliability. This possibility has been demonstrated by research on both men and women.

An experiment conducted by Joseph Forgas on 246 individuals bears this out. Following the recalling of happy or sad past events, the sparticipants were required to read a philosophical essay with an image of either a young female or an old male attached as the writer.

The results showed that those who had recalled sad events, and were therefore, in a negative mood rated lower for the young female. Herein, a negative affect seemed to have eliminated or reversed the halo effect.

Furthermore, research also shows that both females and males who are more attractive are likely to be more vane and egotistical (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani & Longo, 1991).

Moreover, as noted above concerning the study of Sigall and Ostrove, individuals who commit crimes using their good looks to their advantage are more likely to receive harsher penalties than unattractive criminals (Sigall & Ostrove, 1975).


Horn effect

The horn effect is essentially the reverse of the halo effect.

The horn effect, a type of cognitive bias, refers to the tendency to make an overall unfavorable impression of a person, based on one negative trait.

For instance, the horn effect may cause us to stereotype that someone who is physically overweight is also lazy although there is no evidence to indicate that morality is tied to appearance.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, March 22). Why the halo effect affects how we perceive others. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/halo-effect.html

APA Style References

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How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, March 22). Why the halo effect affects how we perceive others. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/halo-effect.html

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