What Is The "Halo Effect" In Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The halo effect refers to the common human tendency of making an overall judgment about someone or something based on a single positive characteristic. Being aware of this cognitive bias can help you recognize when it’s happening and make more informed judgments of others. Read on to learn more about the halo effect plus a variety of real-world examples. 

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What is the halo effect?

The American Psychological Association defines the halo effect is a psychological phenomenon where a single positive trait, such as attractiveness or perceived intelligence, leads to overly favorable evaluations of a person's character and abilities. This bias in social perception often stems from first impressions, influencing how individuals assess other aspects of someone's personality based on a specific trait.

The term, drawing inspiration from a religious concept, metaphorically suggests that the individual is seen in a 'heavenly light', leading to positive predispositions in various social and personal judgments. The halo effect may cause us to ignore negative traits or overlook other traits that may factor into our overall impression of a person.

Reverse halo effect: The horns effect"

In contrast to the halo effect, the reverse halo effect occurs when a negative first impression leads to a negative evaluation of a person. Sometimes called the horns effect, this bias suggests that a single negative trait can cloud our judgment, leading to negative evaluations and feelings towards a person.

For example, people tend to be more judgmental to individuals whose physical appearance they find off-putting, even if they exhibit many positive personality traits. The horn effect demonstrates how powerful first impressions can be, significantly influencing our perception of a person's personality, abilities, and other traits.

Negative consequences of the halo effect

While it can lead to positive impressions and feelings, the halo effect can have significant negative consequences. It can result in a constant error in psychological ratings, where individuals may be inaccurately assessed based on perceived life success or personal qualities rather than their actual abilities or character.
This bias can affect perceptions tied to various domains, such as educational psychology, organizational behavior, and economic psychology. For instance, teachers' expectations of students can be unduly influenced by the halo effect, leading to a discrepancy in grading and assessment that is not reflective of the student's true capabilities. Similarly, in the realm of consumer behavior, the halo effect can lead to misconceptions, such as organic labels on the same food products influencing the consumer's flavor perception.

Other cognitive biases

As the definition above states, the halo effect is an example of a cognitive bias, which is an inclination or prejudice that’s typically unconscious. Because it can be hard to recognize cognitive biases in ourselves, we often tend to hold on to them despite evidence to the contrary—sometimes even manipulating or ignoring new evidence to fit our original impression. The halo effect is just one type of many different biases that humans are prone to. Other examples of common cognitive biases include:

  • Confirmation bias, which refers to only seeking out or listening to facts or opinions that reinforce beliefs you already hold. Examples include only following people like you on social media or only getting news from a single source that shows your political views, and then believing that your opinions and experiences are the most common or correct.
  • Self-serving bias, which is the tendency to attribute successes to one’s hard work and positive qualities but failures to outside forces. For example, believing you passed one exam because you’re smart and studied hard but failed another because the questions were poorly worded or the teacher doesn’t like you could be a manifestation of self-serving bias.
  • Hindsight bias, which is when new information changes how you remember something. For instance, the feeling that you knew how a sporting event or election was going to turn out before it happened could simply come from the fact that the event is over and you now know the results.

The history of the halo effect

The first social psychologist to publicly identify and name this effect was Edward Thorndike. In 1920, he presented his theory of the halo effect in an article called "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings", published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. His article was based on interviews with commanding military officers who were evaluating their soldiers.

Thorndike noticed that their ratings for one positive characteristic often correlated with other positive ratings. For example, he saw that soldiers who were judged favorably in physique were also rated highly in leadership, intellect, loyalty, and other positive qualities. He also noted that once an officer had a negative view of a soldier, they rated them negatively on all measures. His hypothesis of the halo effect has been studied ever since.

Examples of the halo effect

It’s typically easier to understand how any cognitive bias works by examining real-world examples. Read on for what the halo effect can look like in a variety of different scenarios—because the more easily you’re able to recognize it, the better able you may be to combat it so you can have a fairer, more objective view of the people and things around you.

The halo effect and physical attractiveness

When a person is physically attractive, we often perceive them to have positive personality traits. Research over the years has supported the occurrence of this phenomenon in different contexts, including a set of studies in 2022 that found it to hold true across 45 different countries in 11 world regions. The researchers report that “attractiveness correlated positively with most of the socially desirable personality traits” in participant ratings—specifically that both male and female faces were consistently rated as “more confident, emotionally stable, intelligent, responsible, sociable, and trustworthy” cross-culturally.

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The halo effect in marketing

Because the halo effect can apply to both people and objects, marketers often use it to promote products and services. One example is celebrity endorsements of a product. Seeing your favorite athlete promote a fragrance line may make you more inclined to buy that perfume because of your positive view of them as an individual, even though you don’t know them personally. Another is product lines in general. For instance, if a brand whose products you’ve used and enjoyed releases a new product, you’re more likely to rate it positively and then buy it, even if you’ve never used it or heard anything about the new product specifically before.

The halo effect in politics

The halo effect can also play a significant role in politics. Think about how most voters only get snapshot views of the candidates before they vote, such as clips of speeches or interviews and articles about their platform. It’s nearly impossible to get a true, comprehensive view of an individual’s character this way. In cases like these, our brains may naturally form judgments based on unrelated characteristics of theirs that we’ve witnessed. For instance, researchers have found that political candidates who are considered to be attractive are more likely to be viewed as knowledgeable and persuasive as well, potentially creating a false, unconscious link between attractiveness and political expertise or trustworthiness.

The halo effect in academia

Teachers and students can also be susceptible to the halo effect when evaluating each other. In one study, researchers had an instructor record a video of himself speaking with warmth and enthusiasm. Then, in another video, they had him alter his behavior and expressions to appear cold and remote. They then showed these videos to students and asked them to rate the instructor on other qualities not presented in the videos. Students who saw the first video rated the instructor positively across all other personality traits, but students who saw the second video consistently gave him negative ratings.

In another study, teachers were instructed to evaluate a student giving a poor oral presentation, or the same student giving a good one. They were then told to evaluate an unrelated written composition by the student. The results show that the teachers gave “significantly higher scores” to the same written composition when it followed the better oral presentation. 

The halo effect in the legal system

Incidences of the halo effect have also been quite well-documented in the legal system. In one study, for instance, participants were asked to take part in a mock jury and to decide, based on evidence, whether a mock defendant was guilty or not. The researchers found that “physically attractive defendants were evaluated with less certainty of guilt and less severe recommended punishment” than those considered to be conventionally unattractive.

Combating the halo effect

Cognitive biases are hardwired in the brain and usually also supported by a lifetime of strong cultural conditioning. That means it can be difficult to change or combat them, even if you’re aware that they can happen and are doing your best to be conscious of them. As one researcher who specializes in this area shares, widespread societal change is a key component of combating harmful biases as a result of the halo effect and similar phenomenons. That said, there are other ways you can work toward reducing the influence of biases like this, including spending time with people who are different from you and even taking up meditation

If you’re looking to learn more about subjective ways in which you may be viewing the world and making decisions, a therapist can help. Consulting with a cognitive behavioral therapist in particular may be useful, as they’re trained to assist individuals in recognizing and shifting flawed thoughts that are the result of cognitive distortions. These patterns of thinking can be harmful and have even been linked to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Developing an awareness of them can increase your overall well-being and help you view the world in a more realistic manner. 

Those who are interested in meeting with a therapist can usually choose between in-person or virtual sessions, since research suggests that they may be “equally effective”. Individuals who have a busy schedule, live in a rural area, or simply prefer to connect with a therapist from the comfort of home may choose online therapy. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat. With their help, you can address the challenges you may be facing or get support in reaching your personal goals. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

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Takeaway

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which we tend to view a person or thing positively or negatively based on a single impression or fact about them or it. The halo effect has been documented in a wide variety of situations, from the classroom to the courtroom.

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