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 can make us believe wrong information or make us take the wrong decision. In my opinion, everyone should have at least some knowledge of these 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.

16 Mar

The optimistic bias

In this my first article about psychology, I will talk about the optimistic bias: the tendency of people to overestimate good events like our career in the future and underestimate bad events. A personal example that demonstrate the optimistic bias is the certainty I had last year to permanently live in Australia for more than 2 years. I did not evaluate if it would have been worth it or not, and I am now not as sure as before. Another example are marriages. 100% of spouses believe that their marriage will last forever, but as you can see in everyday life the divorce rates in the world is very high: from 20% to even more than 50% in some countries like Spain or Portugal.

Are you more or less intelligent of the average person? What about your driving capability or the capacity to get along with people? Most of us believe to be over the average person in these and many other abilities. Well, we cannot all be better than everyone else because this is statistically impossible. 🙂


So, is the optimistic bias positive or negative? Most of the people might assume that this bias is not positive and that to have low expectation is better because when things don’t happen we are not going to be disappointed. Furthermore, if something good happen we are happier because it wasn’t expected.
This assumption turn out to be false. Tali Sharot, psychologist and author of the book “The optimistic bias”, gives three reasons why an high expectation is better in her Ted Talk.

First, the interpretation of an event matters. People with high expectation will always feel better because when they succeed they attribute that success to their own characteristics and when they fail they attribute the reason of that failure to other factors. They know that the failure is just an exception and therefore they know the next time they’ll do better. On the other hand, people with low expectation do the opposite: when they fail they know it was because they were not able to do better, and when the succeed it was just because they were lucky and next time they will do bad as usual.

The second reason is that anticipation enhance reality. This means that envisioning future positive events can produce a very positive emotional response. The happiness of doing something we’ve been looking forward to does not increase only in that day but also during the days before. In a study which asked people if they were more willing to pay to kiss your favourite celebrity after 1 hour, or after 3 days, the majority of them chose the second option. The extra hours gave people more time to imagine the event. This is also the reason why people prefer Friday to Sunday. On Friday people can anticipate their weekend, on Sunday instead the only thing they can anticipate is the work week.

The third reason is that optimism is not only related to success but it also leads to success. Experiments have demonstrated that if we expect an amazing future, stress and anxiety are reduced. Furthermore, if we have high expectations we are much more willing to work harder to achieve our goals and succeed. Optimism has a lot of benefits.

Optimism - Like a picture

Of course, too much optimism may be also dangerous. If some smokers think the probability they’ll get lung cancer is 10%, but studies says the average is 5%, they’ll efficiently change their believe to 5 or 6 percent. On the other hand, if smokers think the probability for them is 1 or 2 percent, they will not change their believe even after the statistical results say it’s 5%. This means that we believe to signal like “Smoking kills” but we think that mostly it kills other people. Moreover, the optimistic bias can lead us to unnecessary risks with our health or finance. An example might be people who don’t respect speed limits in highways or people who invest huge amounts of money even if they know the percentage of success is incredibly low.

It is scientifically possible to eliminate the bias with electromagnetic impulses to some area of our brain. The question is “Do we really want to get rid of the optimistic bias?”. We have seen the benefits and harms of this bias. Being aware of them means that we may be able to control it more. It is important to have high expectation to improve our future but if we jump from a cliff without a parachute because we are optimist, that might not be a very good decision. The solution is to balance and follow our dreams being aware of the reality