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Everyday Psychology & The Halo Effect: What is Beautiful Is Good


Psychological Theory: The Halo Effect

In 1920, psychologist, Edward Thorndike, released his revolutionary article “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”, the first of its kind to describe the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is the cognitive bias in which the character of the subject of influenced with the overall impression of the observer: more often than not, the level of attractiveness we find in the subject is the factor that we attribute to indicating the greatest amount of good. Moreover, even when we have sufficient information to create individualized analysis of a person, the Halo Effect phenomena still extensively biases us.

The Original Experiment

Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate their subordinate soldiers on qualities like leadership, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability and then also on physical qualities including attractiveness, voice, neatness etc.  He then compared the ratings in each category for correlation between high ratings and low ratings. His findings? Well, overall, if the subordinate soldiers were rated as being more attractive they were, more often than not, also rated as being more intelligent, loyal etc. straight across the board.

So What Does That Mean For Us?

Basically, it means that if you’re attractive you’re automatically assumed to be popular and a better and overall more successful person. And worse than that, since it’s already assumed that you have more skill, you’ll be given greater opportunities in all facets of your life and, if by chance you do make a mistake, it’s more likely to be forgiven and brushed aside as not a big deal.  It’s important to note that this can also work against us. Studies have also shown that people who are considered to be attractive also have a bias against them because others believe that they are vain and use their appearance to manipulate those around them. Wait… what?  Two opposing biases? Jeeze, just when it was starting to make sense.


Halo Brand Power

When it comes to how we interact with the world the Halo Effect has a strong pull on us. Need an example? Look at Apple. Or Motorola. In the first decade of the 2000s, apart from the Ipod or the Razr, neither brand put much emphasis on their products, but since they used forceful marketing and promotion of their single, best product, it put a halo over the rest of their brand which has lead to immense success. The same happened with Howard Stern and Sirius Satelite Radio. Whether you’re buying a product or going to a movie, the spokes model or the star has a huge impact on your decision making process. Me? I cannot stand Gwyneth Palrow, therefore, Iron Man was never going to be a possibility for me. It may seem trivial, but halo, or lack thereof, can have a real and weighty bearing on everything we do.

Since the Halo Effect is related to our feeling of cognitive dissonance, once we have made a positive impression of someone, we will consistently reinforce that idea, regardless of the later fact or information. This is why first impressions are so important: the Primacy Effect dictates that we will remember most vividly the first things we see or hear. When you make a good first impression and exhibit other positive attributes, you will always be a step ahead. Opposingly, if you make a bad first impression any other negative attribute you have will be magnified and held in an even more negative regard.


 Fighting the First Impression and other Social Biases

How do you remedy this bias? Know your audience. Studies have shown that people who are considered to be attractive, and thus are susceptible to the Halo Effect bias, tend to lean towards normative behaviours and conformity. Now, before you even get started, I am not saying that you should be a push over, fall into social stereotypes, or be a spineless drone; all I’m saying is know your audience. When you go for a job interview, do your research. When you’re approaching someone you’ve never met before, be cordial. Look around you to see how the people who are already there are acting. You don’t have to follow along exactly like a lemming, but have a little decorum: it will go a long way in showing that you are aware enough to be responsive to your surroundings.

The same goes for relationships you’ve already cultivated. Be conscious of your facial expressions and your body language.  Yes, they already know you and have made the conclusion that you’re super cool (or not so much), but creating open, non-hostile expressions can be the difference between a long-winded fight and a short-term disagreement. Further, when you are aware of how you’re physical responding to someone—and not solely relying on your vocalized responses—you show a level of tact. How often have you said: “that may be what you said, but that’s not how you meant it”? Where did you get this idea?  Their body language and tone. How did we learn that these indicators were negative? The Halo Effect. When we recognize unattractive words, expressions and sharp tones we are instantly biased to whatever is being said.

If you want to be judged strictly on your skill, it’s time to find a new planet to live on: everyone and everything has some form of bias. What it all really comes down to is making a conscious effort to create a good first impression and caring enough about your success in all facets of your life to continue to strive to reinforce the good people will find in you. Say what you mean.  Mean what you say. Be good. And do good.


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