Photoshop for the mind - the halo effect

June 3, 2015

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This one phenomenon makes you ignore people's flaws. It's the reason that you will pay as much as double for a brand name or ignore the flaws of certain people. It's called the 'halo effect' and...


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This one phenomenon makes you ignore people's flaws. It's the reason that you will pay as much as double for a brand name or ignore the flaws of certain people. It's called the 'halo effect' and although it was discovered as early as 1920, it has just as much influence today (if not more, since people know about it now). In the early 1900's, Edward Thorndike (a big time scientist back then) discovered this phenomenon. Essentially he found that once someone has decided that you have a good quality, that someone will assume that you're a good person. They decide you're good and so everything they do is good in your mind. He called it the 'halo effect', because he likened it to putting a halo on someone's head. We simply assume, from that little bit of evidence that the person is good.

It gets you in every facet of life

  • Research has found that if a teacher evaluates a student as being well-behaved, they will also assume intelligence, enthusiasm and diligence.
  • We've also found that a lecturer perceived as more 'warm' will be seen as more attractive, more likeable mannerisms and even with a cooler accent than THE SAME lecturer when he changes that warm attitude.
  • In a work setting, employers who see their employee as 'enthusiastic' will give them a better performance review than another employee who's less enthusiastic but has the same capability, to the extent that the performance review will be more positive about their ability, capacity and knowledge.
  • If a political candidate is more attractive or familiar (which are essentially the same), they're also seen as more suitable and with better policies
  • It even gets you while you're shopping; stamp 'Harvard Classics' on a book (for example), and it'll attract buyers at double the price than the same book without the stamp.

It can also have the opposite effect

When this happens, it's called the 'reverse-halo' or 'devil' effect. When one assumes you are a terrible person, one cannot see past the negative to see any of the positive attributes of a thing. In fact, even attractiveness (which is one of the most consistent influencing factors of the 'halo effect') won't save you from the 'devil effect'. Think of Hugo Chavez, as the Guardian wrote in 2011.

The halo effect is essentially photoshop; the phenomenon smooths out all the bumps in a personality, product or service.


It's because our brains spend a great deal of their time making shortcuts, to save space for other tasks. So, by taking a small sample of person and using it to judge them more globally, it saves time and cognitive space for other things. But it's obviously problematic, so let's fix it:

  • Make sure, firstly, that you're taking advantage of it. Make an awesome first impression (read the psychology behind great first impressions here) and emphasise warmth and enthusiasm and people will not notice those little imperfections that slip through the cracks
  • Make sure you include the effect in your thought process when you're making important decisions. Gut feelings are very useful and often accurate (we talk about that here), but it might be that your assumptions are wrong because of an inaccurate global appreciate of someone or something
  • And finally, realise that other people may not have the same impression of people or things as you. Your friends and family may not assume the person you think is awesome is so awesome, or someone you aren't too fussed about is a delight. It might be worthwhile trying to see what they are seeing (and maybe show them this article to help correct them)
If you were surprised to learn how much a small thing about a person can affect you, learn how a lab coat could make you kill someone, here. Or learn how smiling can control how you think, feel and act (even if you never felt like smiling in the first place). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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