02 Apr

The Halo Effect

Our brain is an incredible tool, but despite its power and all its amazing features it isn’t perfect and it can make us believe to wrong information or make the wrong decision. In my opinion everyone should have a little knowledge about these errors (biases) and limitations of our mind. Once we know some of the common biases of the human mind, we can begin to think a little better and make smarter decisions. My idea is to write about some of these limitations. In my first article I talked about the Optimistic bias which help us to be optimistic about ourself even if sometimes it can be a double side sword. Today I’ll talk about another very interesting bias which leads people to like or dislike everything about one person or object just after the first impression. The name of this bias is the Halo Effect. The term has been in use in psychology for a century but it has not come in use in everyday language. The psychologist Edward Thorndike was the first who studied the halo effect and gave the phenomenon its name in his 1920 article “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”.

If you think about your favourite actress, you will probably realise that you like her voice as well as her films and appearance. On the other hand, if you dislike a politician, you probably disagree with him and hate the way he talks. This tendency is the halo effect. Being able to recognise it can be very useful for many reason: we may realise how important the first impression is when we try to sell something or when we meet a person for the first time. Furthermore, we might avoid to make hasty decisions we would make because of it.
We tend to think that celebrities are smarter, healthier and more creative. What we know of them is a very small part of their personality but our brain assumes that if they are attractive, they are probably also intelligent. Since when we were children, we learned that the good is beautiful, and the bad is ugly. The princess was always kept in prison by the ugly witch and she needed to be saved from the awesome prince. Beautiful people are always advantaged because unconsciously considered better from our society.

Halo Effect

An advantage of the halo effect is that it works as an heuristic, or mental shortcut. We don’t need to analyse every action someone do but we can base our decision to trust someone or not on our overall impression. This might also be a disadvantage though. For instance, people who are physically attractive can better persuade others. They are also considered friendlier and more talented. That’s the reason why sales men are always well dressed and tidy. The first impression results to be valid in all sorts of domains: job opportunities, dating, and even daily life. An enthusiastic behaviour with a remarkable appearance make the difference between a successful meeting and a regrettable one. The first impression will remain the same, bringing advantages (or disadvantages) in the interaction with people over the time. If people like you, they will forgive you for your “wrongs” and remember your “rights”.

As the image above wants to demonstrate, the halo effect may often drive us to the wrong conclusion. Even if we now know how strong is the first impression we cannot remove this bias from our brain. However, if we are aware of our tendency to overestimate a beautiful smile and underestimate a serious person, we can try to learn better about someone or something before to make a decision. A second big advantage is that we may use this bias to improve our interaction with people. The importance of the first sentences in a presentation and a big smile are straightforward. The first 5 minutes might create the idea one person has about you for the next 5 years.

Remember that you never get a second chance to get a first impression.