What Is the Halo Effect?
The halo effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when an initial positive judgment about a person unconsciously colors the perception of the individual as a whole.
When forming a first impression, observing an initial attractive feature—perhaps beauty or strength—can make the person appealing, making it difficult to revise that impression based on new or opposing information. For example, an attractive individual may also be perceived as interesting, ambitious, or funny.
The term was coined by psychologist Edwin Thorndike in 1920. Thorndike asked commanding officers to rate soldiers on physical characteristics such as physique, and to rate personality traits such as intellect, leadership, and loyalty. He discovered unexpectedly strong correlations between superior physical characteristics and superior personality traits.
The halo effect can take hold in many domains. A manager might appreciate an employee’s enthusiasm so much that they inadvertently write a glowing, yet unmerited, performance review. A consumer’s love for a certain product may prompt them to choose the item with the same brand name when faced with two options. When an initial perception creates a negative aura around a person or product, the halo effect may be referred to as the “horns effect” or the “reverse halo effect.”
How to Counteract the Halo Effect
Why might the halo effect exist? For one, the mind mines the world for information to confirm preexisting beliefs. People strive to avoid the difficulty of reconciling conflicting information and hope to feel confident in their initial judgments. Human beings are complex; the halo effect may be an effective shortcut to understand another person until the relationship progresses.
However, it may be helpful to recognize and counteract the halo effect in potentially problematic situations. One can try to slow his or her reasoning process and focus on the trait in question. Concrete action can also be helpful: Professors can grade papers anonymously, for instance, to prevent prior information from influencing students’ grades. As one might expect, forming long-term relationships diffuses the halo effect, allowing new and varied information to create a deeper, nuanced, and more accurate portrait.