Halo effect

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Edward Thorndike, the first researcher to study the halo effect

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer's overall impression of a person influences the observer's feelings and thoughts about that person's character. It was named by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to a person being perceived as having a halo. Subsequent researchers have studied it in relation to attractiveness and its bearing on the judicial and educational systems.


Edward Thorndike, known for his contributions to educational psychology, coined the phrase "halo effect" and was the first to support it with empirical research.[1] He gave the phenomenon its name in his 1920 article “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”. He had noted in a previous study made in 1915 that estimates of traits in the same person were very highly and evenly correlated. In “Constant Error”, Thorndike set out to replicate the study in hopes of pinning down the bias that he thought was present in these ratings.

Supporting evidence[edit]

In "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings", Thorndike asked two commanding officers to evaluate their soldiers in terms of physical qualities (neatness, voice, physique, bearing, and energy), intellect, leadership skills, and personal qualities (including dependability, loyalty, responsibility, selflessness, and cooperation). His goal was to see how the ratings of one characteristic affected other characteristics.

Thorndike's experiment showed how there was too great a correlation in the commanding officers' responses. In his review he stated: "The correlations are too high and too even. For example, for the three raters next studied[,] the average correlation for physique with intelligence is .31; for physique with leadership, .39; and for physique with character, .28" (p. 27).[1][not specific enough to verify] The ratings of one of the special qualities of an officer,often started a trend in the rating results. If an officer had a particular "negative" attribute given off to the commanding officer, it would correlate in the rest of that soldier's results.

Role of attractiveness[edit]

A person’s attractiveness has also been found to produce a halo effect. Attractiveness provides a valuable aspect of the halo effect to consider because of its multifaceted nature; attractiveness may be influenced by several specific traits. These perceptions of attractiveness may affect judgments tied to personality traits. Physical attributes contribute to perceptions of attractiveness (i.e. weight, hair, eye color). For example, someone who is perceived as attractive, due in part to physical traits, may be more likely to be perceived as kind or intelligent. The role of attractiveness in producing the halo effect has been illustrated through a number of studies. Recent research, for example, has revealed that attractiveness may affect perceptions tied to life success and personality.[2] In this study, attractiveness was correlated with weight, indicating that attractiveness itself may be influenced by various specific traits. Included in the personality variables were trustworthiness and friendliness. People perceived as being more attractive were more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and friendly. What this suggests is that perceptions of attractiveness may influence a variety of other traits, which supports the concept of the halo effect.

On personality[edit]

Dion and Berscheid (1972) conducted a study on the relationship between attractiveness and the halo effect.[3] Sixty students from University of Minnesota took part in the experiment, half being male and half being female. Each subject was given three different photos to examine: one of an attractive individual, one of an individual of average attractiveness, and one of an unattractive individual.

The participants judged the photos’ subjects along 27 different personality traits (including altruism, conventionality, self-assertiveness, stability, emotionality, trustworthiness, extraversion, kindness, and sexual promiscuity). Participants were then asked to predict the overall happiness the photos' subjects would feel for the rest of their lives, including marital happiness (least likely to get divorced), parental happiness (most likely to be a good parent), social and professional happiness (most likely to experience life fulfillment), and overall happiness. Finally, participants were asked if the subjects would hold a job of high status, medium status, or low status.

Results showed that participants overwhelmingly believed more attractive subjects have more socially desirable personality traits than either averagely attractive or unattractive subjects. Participants also believed that attractive individuals would lead happier lives in general, have happier marriages, be better parents, and have more career success than the others. Also, results showed that attractive people were believed to be more likely to hold secure, prestigious jobs compared to unattractive individuals.[4]

Academics and intelligence[edit]

Landy and Sigall’s 1974 study demonstrated the halo effect on judgments of intelligence and competence on academic tasks. Sixty male undergraduate students rated the quality of essays which included both well and poorly written samples. One third were presented with a photo of an attractive female as author, another third with that of an unattractive female as author, and the last third were shown neither.

Participants gave significantly better writing evaluations for the more attractive author. On a scale of 1 to 9, the well-written essay by the attractive author received an average of 6.7 while the unattractive author received a 5.9 (with a 6.6 as a control). The gap was larger on the poor essay: the attractive author received an average of 5.2, the control a 4.7, and the unattractive a 2.7, suggesting readers are generally more willing to give physically attractive people the benefit of the doubt when performance is below standard than others.[5]

In Moore, Filippou, and Perret’s 2011 study, researchers sought to determine if residual cues to intelligence and personality existed in male and female faces by attempting to control for the attractiveness halo effect. They manipulated the perceived intelligence of photographs of individuals, finding that faces manipulated to look high in perceived intelligences were also rated as more attractive. It was also found that the faces high in perceived intelligence were also rated highly on perceived friendliness and sense of humor.[6]

Political effects[edit]

A recent study by Verhulst (2010) found that attractiveness and familiarity are strong predictors of decisions regarding who is put in a position of leadership.Judgements made following one second exposures to side by side photos of two US congressional candidates were reasonably predictive of election outcomes. Attractiveness and familiarity were correlated with competence in this study. Candidates who appeared more attractive and familiar were also seen as more competent and were found more likely to be elected.[7] Similar studies (Palmer, 2012) found that even when taking factual knowledge into account, candidates who were rated as more attractive were still perceived as more knowledgeable. These results suggest that the halo effect greatly impacts how individuals perceive political knowledge and it demonstrates the powerful influence of the halo effect in politics.[8]

Effects on jurors[edit]

Multiple studies of the halo effect in jury outcomes have shown attractive individuals both receive lesser sentences and are less likely to be convicted than unattractive ones.

Efran (1974) found subjects were more lenient in sentencing attractive individuals than unattractive ones even when exactly the same crime was committed. This has been attributed to people with a high level of attractiveness being seen as more likely to have brighter futures in society thanks to socially desirable traits they are believed to possess.[9]

Monahan (1941) studied social workers accustomed to interacting with people from all types of backgrounds, finding the majority found it very difficult to believe beautiful people are guilty of a crime.[10]

Reverse-halo effect[edit]

The devil effect, also known as the reverse halo effect, is when people allow an undesirable trait to influence their evaluation of other traits.[11] The Guardian wrote of the devil effect in relation to Hugo Chavez: "Some leaders can become so demonised that it's impossible to assess their achievements and failures in a balanced way."[12]

The relation of a crime to attractiveness is also subject to the halo effect. A study presented two hypothetical crimes: a burglary and a swindle. The burglary involved a woman illegally obtaining a key and stealing $2,200; the swindle involved a woman manipulating a man to invest $2,200 in a nonexistent corporation. The results showed that when the offense was not related to attractiveness (as in the burglary) the unattractive defendant was punished more severely than the attractive one. However, when the offense was related to attractiveness (the swindle), the attractive defendant was punished more severely than the unattractive one. The study imputes that the usual leniency given to the attractive woman (as a result of the halo effect) was negated or reversed when the nature of the crime involved her looks.[13]


Abikoff found the halo effect is also present in the classroom. In this study, both regular and special education elementary school teachers watched videotapes of what they believed to be children in regular 4th-grade classrooms. In reality, the children were actors, depicting behaviors present in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or standard behavior. The teachers were asked to rate the frequency of hyperactive behaviors observed in the children. Teachers rated hyperactive behaviors accurately for children with ADHD; however, the ratings of hyperactivity and other behaviors associated with ADHD were rated much higher for the children with ODD-like behaviors, showing a halo effect for children with ODD.[14]

Foster and Ysseldyke (1976) also found the halo effect present in teachers’ evaluations of children. Regular and special education elementary school teachers watched videos of a normal child whom they were told was either emotionally disturbed, possessing a learning disorder, mentally retarded, or "normal". The teachers then completed referral forms based on the child's behavior. The results showed that teachers held negative expectancies toward emotionally disturbed children, maintaining these expectancies even when presented with normal behavior. In addition, the mentally retarded label showed a greater degree of negative bias than the emotionally disturbed or learning disabled.[15]

Halo effect and branding[edit]

Extensive use of the halo effect is made in brand marketing. One common halo effect is when the perceived positive features of a particular item extend to a broader brand. In the automotive industry, a manufacturer may produce an exceptional halo vehicle in order to promote sales of an entire marque. One famous example is how the popularity of Apple’s iPod has generated enthusiasm for its other products.[16] Another example is Subway's brand image as a healthy variety of fast food. The perception of a restaurant as 'healthy' causes consumers to underestimate the caloric content of its dishes.[17]

The term "halo effect" has also been applied to human rights organizations that have used their status to move away from their stated goals. Political scientist Gerald Steinberg has claimed that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) take advantage of the "halo effect" and are "given the status of impartial moral watchdogs" by governments and the media.[18][19]

A brand's halo effect can even act as a shield against damage to their reputation from a crisis. An event that a non-positively viewed brand would find detrimental to their reputation among consumers would have less of an impact on a brand that consumers view favorably.[20] [21]

One widely known NGO, The Ronald McDonald House, openly celebrates the positive outcomes they receive from the halo effect. The web page for the Ronald McDonald House in Durham, North Carolina states that 95% of those asked were aware of Ronald McDonald House Charities. This awareness is attributed to the halo effect because employees, customers, and stakeholders are more likely to be involved in a charity that they recognize and trust with a name and logo that are familiar.[22]

Gender differences[edit]

Kaplan’s 1978 study yielded much of the same results as are seen in other studies focusing on the halo effect—attractive individuals were rated high in qualities such as creativity, intelligence, and sensitivity than unattractive individuals. However, in addition to these results Kaplan found that women were influenced by the halo effect on attractiveness only when presented with members of the opposite sex. When presented with an attractive member of the same sex, women actually tended to rate the individual lower on socially desirable qualities.[23] Dermer and Thiel continue this line of research, going on to demonstrate that jealousy of an attractive individual could be a major factor in evaluation of that person. Their work shows this to be more prevalent among females than males, with females describing physically attractive women as having socially undesirable traits.[24]

Criticisms and limitations[edit]

Some researchers allege that the halo effect is not as pervasive as once believed. Kaplan’s 1978 study yielded much of the same results as are seen in other studies focusing on the halo effect—attractive individuals were rated high in qualities such as creativity, intelligence, and sensitivity than unattractive individuals. In addition these results, Kaplan found that women were influenced by the halo effect on attractiveness only when presented with members of the opposite sex. When presented with an attractive member of the same sex, women actually tended to rate the individual lower on socially desirable qualities.[23]

Murphy, Jako and Anhalt argue "Since 1980, there have been a large number of studies dealing directly or indirectly with halo error in rating. Taken together, these studies suggest that all seven of the characteristics that have defined halo error for much of its history are problematic and that the assumptions that underlie some of them are demonstrably wrong." Their work claims that the assumption that halo effects are always detrimental is incorrect, going so far as to say that some halo effects in fact increase the accuracy of the rating. Additionally, they discuss the idea of 'true halo' - the actual correlation between, for example attractiveness and performance as an instructor, and 'illusory halo', which would be cognitive distortions, errors in observation and judgement, and rating tendencies of the individual rater. They claim that any true differentiation between true and illusory halos is impossible in a real-world setting, because the different ratings are strongly influenced by the specific behaviors of the person observed by the raters.[25]

A study done by Joseph Forgas helps explain how one's mood can affect the ease in which you use the Halo Effect. When someone is in a good mood they are more likely to use the Halo Effect, this was demonstrated by people choosing whether the picture of an elderly man with a beard or a young women possessed more philosophical attributes. When exposed to making a list of happy times in their life, the participant expressed a much greater tendency to succumb to the Halo Effect. The implications of this is that in order to be conscious of whether a person is using the Halo Effect or not must be done through a consideration of their emotional state at the time of the judgment.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Thorndike, E. L. (1 January 1920). "A constant error in psychological ratings". Journal of Applied Psychology 4 (1): 25–29. doi:10.1037/h0071663. 
  2. ^ Wade, T. Joel (2003). Sex Roles 48 (9/10): 461. doi:10.1023/A:1023582629538. 
  3. ^ Dion, K; Berscheid, E; Walster, E (December 1972). "What is beautiful is good". Journal of personality and social psychology 24 (3): 285–90. doi:10.1037/h0033731. PMID 4655540. 
  4. ^ Dion, Karen; Ellen Berscheid, Elaine Walster. "What Is Beautiful is Good". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3 (24): 285–290. 
  5. ^ Landy, D.; Sigall, H. (1974). "Task Evaluation as a Function of the Performers' Physical Attractiveness". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29 (3): 299–304. doi:10.1037/h0036018. 
  6. ^ Moore, F. R.; Filippou, D., Perrett, D. (2011). "Intelligence and Attractiveness in the Face: Beyond the Attractiveness Halo Effect". Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 9 (3): 205–217. doi:10.1556/JEP.9.2011.3.2. 
  7. ^ Verhulst, Brad; Lodge,M.,Lavine H. (2010). "The Attractiveness Halo:Why Some Candidates are Perceived More Favorably than Others". Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 34 (2): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10919-009-0084-z. 
  8. ^ Palmer, C.L.; Peterson,R.D. (2012). "Beauty and the Pollster:The Impact of Halo Effects on Perceptions of Political Knowledge and Sophistication". Midwest Political Science Association. 
  9. ^ Efran, M. G. (1974). "The Effect of Physical Appearance on the Judgment of Guilt, Interpersonal Attraction, and Severity of Recommended Punishment in Simulated Jury Task". Journal of Research in Personality 8: 45–54. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(74)90044-0. 
  10. ^ Monahan, F. (1941). Women in Crime. New York: Washburn. 
  11. ^ Nisbett, Richard E.; Wilson, Timothy D (1977). "The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 35 (4): 250–256. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.35.4.250. ISSN 1939-1315. 
  12. ^ Glennie, Jonathan (3 May 2011). "Hugo Chávez's reverse-halo effect". The Guardian. 
  13. ^ Ostrove, Nancy; Sigall, Harold (1975). "Beautiful but Dangerous: Effects of Offender Attractiveness an Nature of the Crime on Juridic Judgment". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31 (3): 410–414. doi:10.1037/h0076472. 
  14. ^ Abikoff, H.; Courtney, M., Pelham, W.E., Koplewicz, H.S. (1993). "Teachers' Ratings of Disruptive Behaviors: The Influence of Halo Effects". Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 21 (5): 519–533. doi:10.1007/BF00916317. PMID 8294651. 
  15. ^ Foster, Glen; James Ysseldyke (1976). "Expectancy and Halo Effects as a Result of Artificially Induced Teacher Bias". Contemporary Educational Psychology 1 (1): 37–45. doi:10.1016/0361-476X(76)90005-9. 
  16. ^ "Apple shares surfs on big profits". BBC News. 13 January 2005. Retrieved 18 January 2012. 
  17. ^ Chandon, Pierre; Brian Wansink (2007). "The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimate and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions". Journal of Consumer Research 34 (3): 301–314. doi:10.1086/519499. Retrieved 11/08/2013. 
  18. ^ Jeffray, Nathan (24 June 2010). "Interview: Gerald Steinberg". The Jewish Chronicle. 
  19. ^ Balanson, Naftali (8 October 2008). "The 'halo effect' shields NGOs from media scrutiny". The Jerusalem Post. 
  20. ^ Coombs, Timothy W.; Holladay (2006). "Sherry J". Journal of Communication Management 10 (2): 123–137. doi:10.1108/13632540610664698. 
  21. ^ Klein, Jill; Niraj Dawar (September 2004). "Evaluations in a Product-Harm Crisis". International Journal of Research in Marketing 21 (3): 203–217. doi:10.1016/j.ijresmar.2003.12.003. Retrieved 11/08/13. 
  22. ^ Jones, Nancy. "Corporate Donors". Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  23. ^ a b Kaplan, Robert M. (1978). "Is Beauty Talent? Sex Interaction in the Attractiveness Halo Effect". Sex Roles 4 (2): 195–204. doi:10.1007/BF00287500. 
  24. ^ Dermer, M.; Thiel, D.L (1975). "When beauty may fail". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31 (6): 1168–1176. doi:10.1037/h0077085. 
  25. ^ Murphy, Kevin R; Robert A Jako, Rebecca L Anhalt (04/1993). "Nature and consequences of halo error: A critical analysis". Journal of Applied Psychology. 78(2) (2): 218–225. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.78.2.218. 
  26. ^ Forgas, Joseph P. (2011). "She just doesn't look like a philosopher…? Affective influences on the halo effect in impression formation". European Journal of Social Psychology 41 (7): 812. doi:10.1002/ejsp.842. 

Further reading[edit]