The Halo Effect


The Halo Effect is a social phenomenon where perception of one trait or behavior of a person influences judgment of other, unrelated traits. In interpersonal relationships it takes the form of perceiving one aspect of a person as “good”, then later judging other characteristics and possibly even their entire being as good.

It also commonly takes the opposite form: if a person’s behavior or traits in one area are perceived as “bad”, then they are seen as bad in other areas, if not an overall bad person. In this case it is known as the Reverse Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect can be seen in everyday life, yet most people don’t recognize it even when it is pointed out to them.  The Halo Effect is used in cases where something is known about a person but other traits are not — people generalize their perception of this one characteristic to other traits.

It is also thought that the Halo Effect arises to avoid cognitive dissonance. People have a difficult time holding the idea of someone as good in one area, and bad in another, or vice versa. To create a consistent impression and relieve this pressure they simply see the person as all bad or all good.

Physical Attractiveness

A common example of The Halo Effect is the perception of physically attractive people as good, virtuous, or intelligent. People who are judged by others as physically appealing are generally given other positive attributes and more leeway than people who are judged to be average or below average in appearance.

It has been shown that people judge their partners as more attractive than others rate their partners. But people also rate their partners as kinder and smarter than others rate them, and kinder and smarter (and more physically attractive) than people they aren’t intimately involved with.

This might seem to be harmless or positive, but partners’ are unable to see each other objectively. Worse, when the Reverse Halo Effect occurs with one’s partner, relationships hit a dead-end due to negative evaluations on both sides.

barack-obama-haloThe Social Scene

People who are viewed as charismatic or popular tend to be rated highly in other areas as well (On the other hand, people lacking in such traits aren’t seen well as a whole). This creates a feedback mechanism whereby a person who is perceived as well-liked and favored gains more applause and appreciation.

The Halo Effect has been used to describe United States’ President Barack Obama’s rise to success and popular approval. As well as his later drastic plunge in public favor.

The president’s public speaking ability, confidence, and good looks helped to increase his nationwide approval via the Halo Effect. Despite not having the political clout of others, his social favor helped grant him the highest office of the country.

Enter the Reverse Halo Effect. The president’s inability to satisfy some of the desires of those who initially approved of him caused his overall approval to decline. What was once a slight disappointment among supporters turned into the largest decline in approval of any president in the last half century, with predictions of it dropping even further.

In other words, beware the Halo Effect.

Do you notice your use of the Halo Effect? Have you ever seen the Halo Effect in process?