The “halo effect”: yet another cognitive Achilles’ Heel

November 1, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Here’s another obstacle to objectively evaluating a person.  There are many aspects of people.  If you are attracted to one aspect strongly, you might (subconsciously) allow that characteristic to serve as a token for that person’s other personality characteristics.   As this article from PsyBlog indicates, this is called the “Halo Effect.”

The ‘halo effect’ is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likeable) bleed over into judgements about their specific traits (e.g. she is intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly. Because they are often attractive and likeable we naturally assume they are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgement and so on. That is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary . . .

So, the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of designer jeans or decide whether you like someone, ask yourself whether the halo effect is operating. Are you really evaluating the traits of the person or product you thought you were? Alternatively is some global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgement? This simple check could save you voting for the wrong person, wasting your money or rejecting someone who would be a loyal friend.

But sometimes a trait probably should be used as a token for that person’s other traits (with lots of asterisks, of course).  If a person shows herself to be conscientious and kind, she is probably trustworthy.   And consider this question, Do bad drivers (or bad eaters) make bad voters?


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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Douglas Adams effectively parodied this concept in "The Hitchhikers Guide" with the bit about the usefulness of a towel. The wording was to the effect that a non-hitcher would be impressed by the fact that a hitcher would keep up with his towel , and therefore assume that he also had other personal care items (e.g. toothbrush, deordorant, haribrush ). The non hitcher would then lend or replace any such items the hitcher seemed to have "lost"

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    More on the halo effect. It seems that we extend it to other people we associate with salient individuals, not just to qualities we associate with salient qualities of a single individual. For instance, how many times have you noticed a lower-status person shadowing a higher status person for a share of the limelight, to bask in that glow? It’s often not a deterrent even if the high status person is a psychologically dysfunctional insensitive confabulator. To give a random example, take politicians. Here’s another example: people associate themselves with winning sports teams (It’s “We won” and “They lost”).

    People intuitively know what cognitive scientists have known for several decades now: our brains work in connectionist fashion. We excel at pattern matching. Our associative cognitive engine often doesn’t parse out whether someone belongs with someone else. We just associate them together. This is a simple but (for me) effective way of understanding why the halo effect readily occurs.

    On the halo effect idea, a friend recently nominated Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh as a good example of a person with a pronounced halo effect. Rajneesh purportedly taught meditation techniques effectively, which earned him numerous devoted followers (including at his commune in Oregon), despite his other, less reputable and honorable activities (e.g., his rampant materialism).  Perhaps I could have picked on some televangelists praised for their eloquence, despite other, unsavory, activities.

  3. xiaogou says:

    I think we see the halo effect in politics in that we have a bipartisan system with Democrats voting for Democrats and Republicans voting for Republicans. And heaven forbid if a Democrat votes Republican or a Republican votes Democrat. So, what happens to the independent bloke that has a good head on his shoulder and honestly wants to make a difference. Absolutely nothing as he does not belong to the “right” party.

    Even our politicians vote along party lines. Even if the bill in question stinks like 10 day old garbage, they vote for it because the party either introduced it or supports it.

    Another phenomenon is as long as the incumbent does not do anything terribly unpopular there is a good chance he will be voted in because he is the incumbent.

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