The Halo Effect

03.11.2018 |

Episode #9 of the course Most brilliant social psychology experiments by John Robin


Welcome to the second to last day of our course.

I hope you’ve been enjoying our tour of popular psychology and that by now, you have a different outlook on the power of crowds and unconscious phenomena on your life.

Today, we’ll explore another, this one about why charismatic leaders win the race even when horrible facts should work against them.


When Our Impression Overpowers Our Judgment

The halo effect is a cognitive bias. There are numerous cognitive biases (see the link at the end of the course). The halo effect is the one relating to how our impression of someone (e.g., “he seems kind and caring”) leads us to make judgments about other traits (e.g., “he would make a great prime minister!”). We see this at work particularly with celebrities and politicians.

The term “halo effect” was first coined in 1920 by psychologist Edward Thorndike, when he was studying how superior officers in the military use impressions of soldiers to evaluate other skills. He noticed especially high correlation between positive impression (e.g., good looks) and positive characteristics (loyalty, intelligence, etc.).

A pioneering study for the halo effect was conducted in 1977 by researchers Dr. Richard Nesbitt and Dr. Timothy Wilson, published in the April journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

118 undergraduate students were selected. In the experiment, they were told to evaluate their professor.

The professors were part of the experiment. One spoke in an English accent and the other spoke in a European accent. One was warm and friendly. He would present himself as respectul of students’ intelligence and goals, show enthusiasm for the course material, and demonstrate a flexible teaching style. The other was cold and distant. He presented himself as distrustful of students and locked to a rigid teaching style.

To evaluate their professor, each student subject watched a video of one of the professors speaking. They were asked to evaluate his appearance, mannerisms, and accent, using an eight-point scale that ranged from “like extremely” to “dislike extremely.”

There was a strong tendency for students who rated the warm and friendly professor to find all three attributes appealing, whereas those who rated the cold and distant one found all three attributes irritating. Mixing up the accent showed how a judgment of irritating or appealing had nothing to do with the accent itself.

The interesting part of this study was how students justified their responses. Those who rated the professor as appealing could not identify why they liked him, while those who rated their professor as irritating were very specific in their reasoning, pointing out things they found annoying that related to appearance, accent, or mannerisms.

The results this study gave us and which have been built further with more research:

• When we are under the halo effect, we are blinded by its influence.

• When not under the halo effect, our senses are quite intact.

The halo effect has been applied to the business world. In fact, it is part of a predominant model: Marketing specialists use it to create positive associations with brands to make their products more appealing.

This effect is everywhere! Celebrity names attached to designer clothes will raise their value—and compel many people to go out and buy them without being as critical as they would be for a cheaper, less recognized brand, where they would be more likely to notice flaws in the material or dislike of design.

The halo effect can even be used to protect a brand when something tarnishing might happen, such as bad press. If marketers who oversee company branding and make the detrimental event seem positive to the brand, the halo effect implies people will associate that event with something positive.

As an example we see commonly in the news, if a large popular organization undergoes a scandal where one of its members is exposed for a crime, the organization will usually fire or remove the member very publicly and, also very publicly, demonstrate how the event served as an opportunity for them to tighten their hiring and supervision policy. If the organization can remain in a positive light in the public eye, the egregious scandal can be overlooked as a flaw of their overall image. This happens often with large businesses and in government.

Try to spot this yourself in the next few weeks as you read the news. Can you see the halo effect at play? Most importantly, can you see past it?

Tomorrow, we’ll cover another cognitive bias, one just as powerful, as we finish our course.


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See the full list of cognitive biases, put together in a handy infographic.


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