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If you think I’m attractive, then you’ll probably think I’m smart too: The Halo Effect

May 9, 2011

Ever look at pictures of people you don’t know (e.g., a friend’s yearbook) and find yourself making judgements about their intellect or other personality traits? Or, maybe you’ve looked at a picture of someone you heard was intelligent (or wealthy), then noticed they suddenly became much more attractive in their pictures?

Well, there’s a psychological term for that phenomenon: It’s called the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect states that when we make a judgement about someone in one category (e.g., appearance, intellect, wealth), we are more likely to make similar judgements about him or her in other categories.

Edward Thorndike first identified this in the early 1920’s while interviewing officers in the military. He asked army officers to rate soldiers on certain qualities or traits (e.g., intelligence, physique, leadership). He found that if officers rated a soldier high on one quality, they were also likely to rate that soldier highly on other qualities. It was almost as though these soldiers had a “halo” of goodness around them. (The reference for the “Halo Effect” in fact comes from biblical paintings and images, whereby characters painted with halos around their heads were perceived as saintly and good).

Other researchers have studied the Halo Effect in greater detail. Karen Dion, for example, discovered the impact that “attractiveness” had on our judgement of other qualities in a person. In 1972, Dion showed students a series of pictures. The students were then asked to rate the individuals on a variety of personality traits. As you may guess, individuals who were perceived as “attractive” were also associated with other positive qualities (warm, intelligent, kind, etc.).

Marketing and The Halo Effect

In the business world, the Halo Effect has been evident in companies who have successfully achieved a brand name. Think of Nike. Their initial claim to fame was in their running shoe design during the 1980’s. Once the company cemented their success in the sports-shoe market, they decided to enter into the sportswear market, even though the company had absolutely no experience in manufacturing shirts or sweatpants. Suddenly, consumers began to purchase their clothing as well. The company benefited from the Halo Effect: people correlated the positive qualities of one product line (the running shoe) with all of their other products (golf clubs, gym bags, hockey sticks, etc). Apple is another example: some would argue the success of the iPod created a “Halo” of positive attributes for the rest of the company’s products.

Illness and The Halo Effect

I’ve been speaking about how one positive quality in an individual can lead to the perception of other positive qualities. The opposite is also true. That is, when we are aware of (or falsely assume) a less-than-favourable quality or trait in an individual, we end up attributing several negative qualities to that person as well. This is the barrier that many individuals with a mental or physical disability encounter in their journey towards health. When we find out that an individual is struggling with a disorder or a disability, we end up making negative judgements about that person’s character or personality traits.

Hoping this bit of knowledge encourages you to be more open to the positive traits we all possess…

(Richard Amaral is a registered psychologist and certified workshop facilitator)

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3 Comments
  1. fredsarkari permalink

    Richard, love your piece on marketing with the halo effect. If entrepreneurs were to grasp the impact of that, they would run their business in a completely different fashion.

    Do one thing well, and become an expert at it. Or at least have the perception that you are. In turn people will think you are an expert at everything.

    Keep writing – love your thoughts.

  2. Great post Richard! I agree with Fred’s points as well. The Halo Effect sounds a bit like a person with a “Midas touch” (everything they “touch” or do turns to gold).

    As you were speaking of the negatives outcomes, I stopped to think of the implications of the Halo Effect in relation to Race and Ethnicity and other cultural contexts. I’m sure there are certainly some parallels.

    Great read – keep posting!

  3. Richard, I like your article on the Halo Effect. I read about it a long time ago so it’s good to be refreshed. I married my first husband because of this halo effect. He was a seminarian so I thought he was good. It turned out to be the opposite.

    Do you know how we come to perceive people having “halos”? I’m curious if it is something we learn from our society?

    More power to you!

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