Halo Effect: A Bias Blinded by Beauty
Sat, April 10, 2021

Halo Effect: A Bias Blinded by Beauty

Many of us interact with people every day, may it be in our houses, workplaces, or on the streets. Some of them we have known for quite some time now, while others we’ve just met recently / Photo by: gstockstudio via 123RF

 

“The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.”

– From “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

 

Many of us interact with people every day, may it be in our houses, workplaces, or on the streets. Some of them we have known for quite some time now, while others we’ve just met recently. But no matter how long or short we have known them, we tend to make judgments about these people on various levels. And as we form these opinions, we tend to be influenced by what is called the halo effect.

The halo effect is people’s tendency to judge individuals by their overall impression of them. For instance, if we feel that a person is “nice,” we tend to attribute other positive qualities to them, including being hardworking, smart, and loyal. It seems as if known personal characteristics radiate a positive or negative halo, which can influence a person’s expectations about them. This cognitive bias happens when one positive attribute is embellished in holistically positive terms. 

However, the concept of the halo effect is nothing new because we are all prone to bias, conscious and unconscious. After all, we are wired by emotions. According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information, the halo effect is present in every aspect of our daily lives. These include situations involving people that an individual find attractive, workplace, school, medicine and healthcare, and how you respond to marketing campaigns.

History of Halo Effect

Halo effect was first coined and described by psychologist Edward L. Thorndike back in the 1920s. In his paper titled “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings,” Thorndike revealed that the halo effect can operate in strange ways, especially when the known qualities of a person are unrelated to the characteristics to be inferred. For instance, physical appearance usually is the basis for inferring internal, unrelated personal qualities. 

In his study, Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate a variety of qualities in their subordinate soldiers. Some of the characteristics that were included were leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability. According to Veryell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides the guidance people need to improve their mental health and find balance, the psychologist aimed to determine how ratings of one quality are connected with assessments of other characteristics. 

Thorndike found out that qualities with high ratings are correlated with high ratings of other characteristics. On the other hand, negative ratings of a certain quality can lead to lower ratings of other characteristics. "The correlations were too high and too even. For example, for the three raters next studied, the average correlation for the physique with intelligence is 0.31; for the physique with leadership, 0.39; and for the physique with character, 0.28,” Thorndike wrote. 

The halo effect is people’s tendency to judge individuals by their overall impression of them / Photo by: fikmik via 123RF

 

Several studies showed that physically attractive women were judged to have more desirable internal qualities compared to unattractive looking women. Positive qualities such as competence, happiness, and more are usually labeled to them. At the same time, these women tend to be punished less when they commit a crime. While this has been a common thing in our society for many years, it’s still surprising to see that people make judgments about another person’s personality based on that person’s physical attractiveness.

In a book titled “Breaking Bias” written by Matthew Lieberman, a professor and social cognitive neuroscience lab director at UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Biobehavioral Sciences, it was discussed how the halo effect suggests that the human brain is wired to process information quickly and efficiently. This means that all people are prone to snap judgments. 

“Unconscious cognition is essential to human functioning; it helps us to be efficient and responsive to the world around us. However, unconscious processes are also prone to errors—errors that remain unrecognized and uncorrected, which can lead to flawed decision-making, significant bias and blinkered thinking” Lieberman said.

Impacts of the Halo Effect

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology discovered that most people overwhelmingly believed more attractive subjects have more socially desirable personality traits compared to averagely attractive or unattractive subjects. This was participated by 30 males and 30 females from the University of Minnesota. The researchers ordered them to judge the photos' subjects along 27 different personality traits, which include kindness, sexual promiscuity, extraversion, trustworthiness, self-assertiveness, and more. 

Unfortunately, the halo effect can have undesirable outcomes. Previous studies showed that it may often give rise to long-term biases and distortions to the way a person is assessed. For instance, educators may communicate with students differently based on perceptions of attractiveness. This was proven when a study revealed that students who were rated as above-average in appearance earned significantly higher grades. 

Aside from that, the halo effect can have an impact on politics. According to BetterHelp, an online portal that provides direct-to-consumer access to behavioral health services, political candidates who are conventionally attractive are more likely to win an election. People also believe that a candidate is more knowledgeable because they are attractive. 

Also, a study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology revealed that the halo effect can have an impact on income. For instance, attractive food servers earn approximately $1,200 more every year compared to their unattractive counterparts.

Thus, it is important that we keep on reminding ourselves that we shouldn’t base our judgments on whether a person is attractive or not. All of us are more than our physical looks. 

Several studies showed that physically attractive women were judged to have more desirable internal qualities compared to unattractive looking women / Photo by: Anton Estrada via 123RF