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The Halo Effect: How Traits Affect Our Judgment

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Human judgment is influenced by traits, often subtly, such as in the Halo Effect where visual attractiveness affects perception of niceness. Explore these mechanisms, and the opposite effect, the Devil Effect, through examples in school, work, and marketing. Updated: 10/06/2021

Halo Effect

Kenny is a pretty average guy: he's average looking and makes an average salary. He lives in an average house. When he was in school, he always made average grades.

But Kenny has started to notice something going on in the world around him: people like him, who are average, seem to be average in just about every aspect of their lives. But people who are above average seem to be above average at everything. For example, one woman that Kenny works with is really beautiful. She's also really smart and makes a lot of money. Her life just seems to be charmed.

What's going on? Kenny might have fallen victim to the halo effect, or the fact that a positive belief about one part of a person can influence your opinion of other parts of that person. For example, a really attractive person, like Kenny's coworker, might be seen as really nice, even though she might not be any nicer than anyone else. Likewise, someone who is successful could be assumed to be smart, even if they aren't.

To remember the term 'halo effect,' think about a halo floating over an angel's head: if you see a halo on them, you'll assume that they are infallible. That's the halo effect!

Psychologist Edward Thorndike first wrote about the halo effect. He noticed that people make judgments about others based on their perceptions of only one part of that person and that their judgments aren't really all that accurate. Just like Kenny assuming his coworker is really, really nice because she's beautiful, when in reality she's only sort of nice, the halo effect can blind people to reality.

The halo effect isn't something that people are aware of; it's just something that happens to us when we're around someone we like, admire, or think is attractive. In fact, some studies have shown that even being aware of the halo effect doesn't prevent someone from falling victim to it!

Let's look closer at some areas where the halo effect can play a role, as well as the opposite of the halo effect, sometimes called the devil effect.

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  • 0:02 Halo Effect
  • 2:06 School and Work
  • 3:23 Marketing
  • 4:51 Devil Effect
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School and Work

Remember that Kenny is average in most ways, so it makes sense that he made average grades when he was in school. That's not surprising for the many psychologists who have studied the effects of the halo effect on teachers and education.

What they've found is that teachers and other educators are just as susceptible to the halo effect as everyone else. Teachers can be biased for or against students because of the halo effect. For example, a student who has a bad attitude may be really smart and do great work, but the teacher might believe that the student isn't a good student because he is not a well-behaved student.

Likewise, teachers may see someone like Kenny, who appears average, and assume that they will do average work. Because they treat him like he's an average student, Kenny becomes an average student.

It doesn't end with graduation, either. The halo effect is at play in the workplace. Numerous studies have shown that people who are more attractive make more money. Remember Kenny's good-looking coworker? Kenny believes that she's really smart because she's good-looking. If her bosses also fall victim to the halo effect, she is likely to make more money than Kenny or other average-looking workers.

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