GuidesUser experience (UX)The halo effect guide

The halo effect guide

Last updated

7 March 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Katie Reed

The halo effect is a psychological principle that influences people to form immediate impressions of others based on superficial characteristics. It has serious implications in the workplace, schools, and everyday settings.

In this article, we’ll explore what the halo effect is, why it can be harmful to areas like user experience, and how you can overcome its effects.

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What is the halo effect?

The halo effect means judging people by their appearance. More specifically, it’s the tendency to assume someone you find attractive also possesses other desirable qualities like honesty, competence, or character.

While the concept is very simple, its consequences can be far-reaching and often harmful.

Why is it called the halo effect?

Halos are often found in traditional religious art, depicted as a disk or circle of light hovering over the head of a saint or other holy figure. The halo effect occurs when people place metaphoric halos over others, usually for superficial reasons.

History of the halo effect

The term isn’t new. Psychologist Edward Thorndike coined it in a 1920 paper entitled A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.

Thorndike’s original study was a little broader than just focusing on attractiveness. He asked military officers to rate soldiers on a variety of qualities. He found that giving someone a high rating in one area carried over into other areas.

For example, someone who scores highly in one area, whether it be attractiveness, intelligence, athleticism, or competence in a particular field, is often presumed to have other positive qualities.

However, the halo effect tends to focus mainly on physical appearance. It’s sometimes called the “physical attractiveness stereotype.”

Where and when does this bias occur?

The halo effect may be a factor in the following areas:

Workplaces

The halo effect can have serious ramifications in the workplace if people are treated differently based on their appearance. An example would be when a worker who is considered more attractive is promoted or paid more than their co-workers when they don’t deserve it.

Education

Teaching staff may be influenced by the halo effect at all education levels, from kindergarten to graduate and professional university programs.

They may, whether consciously or not, consider students they find more attractive to be smarter and more competent than others. This assumption can impact grades as well as the overall attitude teaching staff have toward students.

The halo effect can also occur in the opposite direction here, such as in student evaluations of professors.

Additionally, the halo effect may be a factor when it comes to teachers, professors, and administrators attaining higher status, promotions, or tenure. In Felicia Nimue Ackerman’s essay, The Halo Effect in Academia, the author relates how hero worship of renowned professors can interfere with objective thinking.

Advertising and marketing

The halo effect can make people think that people who are attractive and glamorous can be trusted on matters on which they have little expertise.

This goes back to the early days of television when celebrities were often hired as spokespeople for products in commercials. Today’s social media influencers may also benefit from the halo effect.

Websites and social media

Individuals and organizations may consciously or unconsciously use images that are considered more eye-catching and persuasive on websites and social media.

An easy way to see evidence of this is to browse through any site offering stock photos. The photos featuring people usually display those who are considered attractive and glamorous.

Politics

Politics is another area where the halo effect can have undesirable consequences. People may judge a candidate or elected official based on their appearance.

An attractive person isn’t necessarily honest or a good leader. People may also mistake other desirable qualities, such as being well-spoken and articulate, for intelligence or integrity.

Justice is supposed to be impartial. However, judges and jury members are human and may be influenced by the halo effect.

A defendant with an attractive and well-groomed appearance may be judged less harshly than someone who appears rougher around the edges. There’s a good reason why attorneys have their clients dress in their best suits (even when these people don’t normally wear suits at all).

Aside from juries rendering verdicts, the halo effect may influence a judge when passing a sentence.

Social interactions

The halo effect doesn’t only apply to institutions and professional settings. It can influence how people treat acquaintances, co-workers, fellow students, or strangers at a party, meeting, or public place.

What causes the halo effect?

The halo effect is a complex mechanism that occurs for several reasons. Psychologists have different ideas and theories on the subject. However, studies have brought us some solid conclusions.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias refers to any errors made in thinking or intellectual calculations that are based on unconscious oversimplifications. There are several types of cognitive bias.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to interpret current facts in a way that conforms to pre-existing beliefs. This could be due to beliefs you picked up from your parents, peers, something you read, or anywhere else. 

Hindsight bias

Hindsight bias occurs when past events are interpreted as predictable based on current information. A common example of this is financial experts explaining why markets went up or down after the fact.

Self-serving bias

The tendency to interpret reality in a way that serves your own interests is self-serving bias. In particular, people tend to attribute positive outcomes to personal qualities and negative outcomes to bad luck or the actions of others. A related phenomenon is a group-serving bias, where this tendency applies to a group.

These and other variations of cognitive bias can contribute to and reinforce the halo effect. For example, if you consider someone physically attractive, you are more likely to attribute their success to competence and their failures to bad luck. This is especially likely if the person belongs to your team (group-serving bias).

The horn effect

The horn effect is related to the halo effect but works in the opposite way.

With the horn effect, a negative characteristic is generalized to reflect poorly on an individual. For example, it’s possible to unjustifiably assume that a less attractive person is unintelligent or untrustworthy.

This can work with other characteristics as well. If you see evidence that someone performs poorly at a certain task, you may assume they are incompetent in general.

Both the halo effect and horn effect involve generalizing. While most people are a complex combination of positive and negative traits, it can be easy to look at one aspect of a person and form a distorted big picture.

How to avoid the halo effect

The halo effect (along with the horn effect) is a natural tendency that occurs due to largely unconscious cognitive bias. However, you can take certain steps to avoid or at least downplay its influence when you are aware of it.

Awareness and behavior changes

The most insidious thing about the halo effect is that it’s unconscious. It influences attitudes and behaviors without people being aware of it.

The first step in preventing the halo effect is knowing that it exists. Simply knowing about it, however, isn’t sufficient. You need to take deliberate actions to overcome it or at least minimize its influence. You can remind yourself that your attitudes and assumptions about people are not always trustworthy. Everyone has their own cognitive biases that may cause them to prejudge people unfairly.

To overcome the halo effect, it’s often helpful to observe your initial impressions and assumptions about others. Take the time to ask yourself if your conclusions are warranted. It may help to consult with someone else you trust. If possible, you can verify the assumptions based on hard evidence.

For example, if you are a hiring manager, you may be initially impressed with the way a candidate expresses themselves and conclude that they are ideal for the position. However, going over their resume or contacting a former employer might give you a broader perspective to make a more informed decision.

Educating employees and team members

Individuals and organizations should address the halo effect. Business owners, managers, school officials, and anyone in a position of authority should take steps to educate their peers and employees about the halo effect and how to combat it.

Raising the topic in meetings, organizational newsletters, and any other communication channels can be worthwhile. It is a very pervasive process, so people need to be reminded of it periodically.

Use a competency and skills-based approach

The antidote to the halo effect is basing recruitment, hiring, promotion, or grading on skills and competency rather than more subjective factors like appearance or personality. This could look like:

  • Administering skill assessment tests for hiring

  • Basing promotions and raises on quantifiable accomplishments

  • Grading students on objective criteria, such as exam performance

However, you can reduce the halo effect by establishing a strong foundation of objective criteria for assessing people.

The halo effect can’t be eliminated but it can be minimized

The halo effect is based on cognitive bias, so completely eliminating it is unlikely. However, when you recognize that it exists and has potentially harmful consequences, you can take steps to minimize it.

As individuals, we can question our impulses to look at others superficially or generalize their positive (or negative) features. Organizations can work to educate employees and members to be on guard for the halo effect and adopt methods for avoiding it.

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