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The Halo Effect: What It Is and How to Beat It

The Halo effect is a decision bias that can cloud people’s judgements.

Key points

  • The Halo effect involves people over-relying on first impressions.
  • It can lead to poor judgements and affect choices, for example when recruiting new employees or choosing a romantic partner.
  • A three-step approach that involves slowing down decisions can help to overcome the Halo effect.

If you are familiar with Beyoncé’s hit single “Halo,” you may have a sense of the all-encompassing brightness associated with halos. In the context of religious art, halos are crowns of light rays or luminous circles that surround the heads of heroes, saints or angels. The halo’s glow has the power to portray people in a special, otherworldly light. Given its influence on appearances, the halo also lends itself to describing a common bias in people’s judgements of others.

tumisu/Pixabay
Is the Halo effect clouding your judgement?
Source: tumisu/Pixabay

The Halo Effect

The Halo effect describes a curious phenomenon, whereby the way we perceive one character trait of a person influences all subsequent judgements of other, even unrelated character traits of the same person. As such, our first impression of a stranger often has spillover effects on all future evaluations of their personality and skills.

Consider the following example: Emira has been exchanging emails with Jodi, a new colleague from a different office. The first thing Emira notices when opening Jodi’s messages is her excellent use of grammar and punctuation. Emira is highly impressed with Jodi’s language skills and assumes she has a keen eye for detail. While this assessment may well be accurate, it ends up affecting her overall evaluation of Jodi’s work. For example, even though some of Jodi’s ideas lack feasibility, Emira tends to agree with all of her suggestions. The spillover effect even influences Emira’s judgement of Jodi’s personality. She has never met Jodi in person, yet she thinks of her as friendly and reliable, and, consequently invites Jodi to her birthday party.

The Halo effect is a well-established cognitive bias that was first discovered in the early 20th century when psychologist Edward Thorndike conducted a survey of industrial workers. Thorndike asked employers to rate their workers on different dimensions including physical qualities, intelligence, leadership skills, personal qualities and overall value to service. When analysing the data, Thorndike observed surprising patterns: People, who were judged highly on one characteristic typically also scored above average on the other questionnaire characteristics. For example, a worker perceived as good-looking was also rated as intelligent. Does that mean prettier people are generally smarter? Rather unlikely! Just like in the example above, a spillover effect from one characteristic to another is a much more plausible explanation.

Interestingly, the Halo effect can work in different directions: While a positive first impression helps to elevate future assessments of a person, a negative first impression is often just as pervasive. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses the negative Halo effect (sometimes also referred to as "Horn effect") in the context of Adolf Hitler’s personality. He writes:

The statement “Hitler loved dogs and little children” is shocking no matter how many times you hear it, because any trace of kindness in someone so evil violates the expectations set up by the Halo effect.

Does the Halo effect influence your life?

The Halo effect is a mental shortcut to help people make faster judgements. It also serves to increase the consistency of our evaluations and build easier narratives. People tend to avoid states of internal inconsistency: It’s easier to build a mental image of a person that’s all positive than it is to carefully construct a nuanced picture, which involves both good and bad aspects, depending on the context.

The Halo effect is particularly problematic in decision contexts, where initial judgments may have disproportionately large effects on later outcomes. Examples include job recruitment and romantic dating:

  • Job recruitment: Alex is on the interview panel for a new colleague. As the second candidate walks in, the recognition hits him like a flash. The guy is a regular attendee at Alex’s local yoga class, and man, he’s a pro! Alex is completely taken with his strength and flexibility. During practice, he sometimes just watches him for inspiration. The interview hasn’t even started, yet, but Alex’s mind is made up. Given his outstanding yoga skills, this candidate surely must have other positive qualities. He will definitely get Alex’ vote.
  • Dating: While enjoying after-work drinks in a local pub, Maya locks eyes with a handsome stranger. Her heart seems to skip a beat. His dark curls and strong features signal masculinity, warmth, ambition and kindness all at once. Maya is smitten and doesn’t seem to notice the stranger’s racist jokes and pushy dance moves. His attractiveness radiates just like a halo, and she ends up going home with him at the end of the night.

How to beat the Halo effect

The Halo effect often has dangerous consequences. It can cloud people’s judgements and mislead them to make unfair or inappropriate decisions. As demonstrated in the examples above, outcomes can include poor recruitment choices or inevitable heartbreak.

Luckily, there is a simple strategy for tackling the Halo effect and training yourself not to judge a book by its cover. Biases are most influential when we allow for automatic, intuitive and emotional thinking to influence our judgements. To reduce the influence of cognitive biases, we therefore have to slow things down and control subjective feelings. The following three-step process can help:

  1. Be aware: Awareness is the first step towards overcoming errors in judgement. Keeping in mind the potentially harmful consequences of first impressions is helpful when meeting new people. This might involve flagging up biases while shortlisting job candidates or reminding yourself of past judgement errors when embarking on a new relationship.
  2. Slow down: The second step is to deliberately slow down your judgement and any subsequent decisions. Never make a recruitment choice straight after the interview. Instead, you could prolong the decision process by scheduling another panel meeting for the next day. In the context of romantic dating, it's typically helpful to take your time when getting to know the other person. For example, you might decide to go on several dates before taking things to the next level.
  3. Be systematic: Finally, try to engage your analytical reasoning skills by taking a systematic approach. This sounds trickier than it is. In the context of interviewing, you could prepare a list of essential criteria and force yourself to consider each one carefully before making a choice. Similarly, when choosing a new romantic partner, you can follow a mental checklist of key “must-have's” or absolute “no-no's.” If you think a racist partner is going to cause problems in a long-term relationship, any racist jokes should ring alarm bells even if they have the looks of a professional model!

The Halo effect can cloud your judgement of others. At the same time, it may determine how other people perceive you. Would you want strangers to judge your personality based on a haircut gone wrong? Or a badly worded first email? It seems like all of us could do with incorporating the above suggestions to de-bias our judgements.

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