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January 12th, 2014 1 Comment

The Halo Effect

The existence of the so-called halo effect has long been recognised. It is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. It is the phenomenon whereby we assume that because people are good at doing A, they will be good at doing B, C and D (or the reverse — because they are bad at doing A, they will be bad at doing B, C and D).

The phrase was first coined by Edward Thorndike, a psychologist who used it in a study published in 1920 to describe the way that commanding officers rated their soldiers. He found that officers usually judged their men as being either good right across the board or bad. There was little mixing of traits; few people were said to be good in one respect but bad in another.

Later work on the halo effect suggested that it was highly influenced by first impressions. If we see a person first in a good light, it is difficult subsequently to darken that light. The old adage that “first impressions count” seems to be true. This is used by advertisers who pay heroic actors and beautiful actresses to promote products about which they have absolutely no expertise. We think positively about the actor because he played a hero, or the actress because she was made up to look incredibly beautiful, and assume that they therefore have deep knowledge about car engines or anti-wrinkle cream.

So why do our overall impressions of a person create this halo that influences our evaluations of specific traits? Researchers have found that attractiveness is one factor that can play a role. Several different studies have found that when we rate people as good-looking, we also tend to believe that they have positive personality traits and that they are more intelligent. One study even found that jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty of criminal behavior.

Rasmussen, in the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, Volume 1, 2008, wrote:

In the classroom, teachers are subject to the halo effect rating error when evaluating their students. For example, a teacher who sees a well-behaved student might tend to assume this student is also bright, diligent, and engaged before that teacher has objectively evaluated the student’s capacity in these areas. When these types of halo effects occur, they can affect students’ approval ratings in certain areas of functioning and can even affect students’ grades.

But the evaluation of teachers by students is also influenced by the Halo Effect. In a study in 1977, the researchers wanted to examine the way student participants made judgements about a lecturer. Students were told the research was investigating teacher evaluations. Specifically, they were told, the experimenters were interested in whether judgements varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular lecturer. This was a total lie.

In fact the students had been divided into two groups who were going to watch two different videos of the same lecturer, who happened to have a strong Belgian accent (this is relevant!). One group watched the lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner. The second group saw exactly the same person answer exactly the questions in a cold and distant manner. Experimenters made sure it was obvious which of the lecturers alter-egos was more likeable. In one he appeared to like teaching and students and in the other he came across as a much more authoritarian figure who didn’t like teach at all.

After each group of students watched the videos they were asked to rate the lecturer on physical appearance, mannerisms and even his accent (mannerisms were kept the same across both videos). Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the ‘warm’ incarnation of the lecturer rated him more attractive, his mannerisms more likeable and even is accent as more appealing.

What is surprising is that after the study it was suggested to them that how much they liked the lecturer might have affected their evaluations. Despite this, most said that how much they liked the lecturer from what he said had not affected their evaluation of his individual characteristics at all.

Your evaluation of a lecture might be influenced by how you feel about the lecturer

Your evaluation of a lecture might be influenced by how you feel about the lecturer

Job applicants are also likely to feel the impact of the halo effect. If a prospective employer views the applicant as attractive or likeable, they are more likely to also rate the individual as intelligent, competent, and qualified.

Recognition that the halo effect has a powerful influence on business has been relatively recent. In his prize-winning book “The Halo Effect”, published in 2007, Phil Rosenzweig, an academic at IMD, a business school near Lausanne in Switzerland, argued:

Much of our thinking about company performance is shaped by the halo effect … when a company is growing and profitable, we tend to infer that it has a brilliant strategy, a visionary CEO, motivated people, and a vibrant culture. When performance falters, we’re quick to say the strategy was misguided, the CEO became arrogant, the people were complacent, and the culture stodgy … At first, all of this may seem like harmless journalistic hyperbole, but when researchers gather data that are contaminated by the halo effect – including not only press accounts but interviews with managers – the findings are suspect. That is the principal flaw in the research of Jim Collins’s “Good to Great”, Collins and Porras’s “Built to Last”, and many other studies going back to Peters and Waterman’s “In Search of Excellence”. They claim to have identified the drivers of company performance, but they have mainly shown the way that high performers are described.

So next time you make a judgement about someone, like, for instance, when voting for a politician, ask yourself whether your judgement is based on concrete facts about that person or it is the halo effect operating. Are you really evaluating the traits of that person, or is there some global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgement? Asking yourself these questions is an act of mindfulness that can help you (and your country, maybe!) in a variety of situations.

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One Response

  1. Sarah says:

    It really makes us think about how likely it is that we make mistakes when judging people…

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