The Halo Effect: How Your First Impression May Deceive You


Take a moment to reflect on how you form first impressions of people. If you were honest with yourself, you likely answered by saying ‘looks’. Since it is the first thing that you notice about a person, looks become a factor in influencing your perception of people you meet. In this case, you experience a cognitive bias. The halo effect is one such bias that influences your impressions, significantly impacting your perception of people, products, brands or ideas. This article focuses on explaining to the reader what it is, why it occurs, and how a person can avoid being subjected to it.

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What is the Halo Effect?

The halo effect is a cognitive bias that makes a person base their entire judgment on their opinion of one single characteristic that is known to them. This term was coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in his 1920 paper “The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings”. According to this bias, a positive perception of one favourable aspect casts a halo, or a circle of light, around the entire person, product or idea, giving an illusion of positivity in other aspects as well. This bias can cause influence at an individual level, as well as a broad one.

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At an individual level, attractiveness plays an important role, as you might perceive an attractive individual to also be kind, smart and overall, likeable. Consider brands and their products to look at another example of the effect. If you have used one product of a brand that you love, you are likely to look for another product of the same brand, even though you’ve never used it. It’s important to note that the opposite is also true. After having a negative initial encounter with a person, you’ll likely view them as a bad person. This is called the horn effect, which focuses on generalizing negative traits.

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Occurrence of Halo Effect

The basis of the Halo effect originates from the way cognitive processes take place. The brain uses the halo effect to form opinions efficiently and quickly. The construction of an image is thus based on information that is already available to the brain. This includes one’s perception of others’ looks or the nature of the first interaction the person has had. It is used synonymously with the stereotype of physical attractiveness or the belief that ‘what is beautiful is also good’. Perception, thus, plays a very important role in the occurrence of the halo effect.

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A 2013 study titled ‘Role of physical attractiveness in impression formation’ showed that high attractiveness is associated with positive traits. The study also commented on the consistency of results when the logic is reversed. Other researchers have repeatedly shown this as well. A 2003 study titled ‘Weight Halo Effects: Individual Differences in Perceived Life Success as a Function of Women’s Race and Weight’ has also traced that high attractiveness affects perceptions of personality and plays a role in determining success.

Halo Effect in Real Life

A famous experiment related to this cognitive bias is known as the Halo Effect experiment. This was conducted in 1946 by psychologist Solomon Asch, who is known for his work in the field of social psychology. As a part of this experiment, participants were shown pictures of individuals who would be considered to be attractive according to the social standards, and those who would be considered unattractive. After presenting the participants with these pictures, they were asked to rate them on various personality traits. More positive traits were attributed to attractive individuals, and vice-versa, showing a clear halo effect.

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The halo effect is seen in academic spaces, as well as work spaces. In a classroom setting, a teacher might assume that a child is obedient if they have good scores. In the office, if a person acts sincerely in front of their boss, the boss is likely to believe that the employee enjoys their work. It also comes into play in the justice system, where a particular race is given the benefit of the doubt, whereas, people from a minority race are easily suspected. It is also widely seen in consumer behaviour. A product with more attractive packaging is more likely to sell out. New products by trusted brands are also believed to be of good quality.

Avoiding Halo Effect:

While the halo effect is a natural bias that occurs in every individual, it is quite possible to use it as a tool of manipulation. Being aware of the halo effect can help an individual make informed choices. While awareness is the first step to avoid falling prey to the halo effect, other strategies can be used for the same.

  • Effective Thinking: When you question those things that you engage with, instead of blindly believing, you’ll learn to be able to think for yourself.
  • Delayed Judgment: Don’t rush into any decision, whether it is big or small. Take your time to weigh its advantages and consequences before deciding.
  • Diverse Range of Sources: Don’t count on a single source for all your information. Refer to a diverse range of information sources to achieve a full picture.
  • Reflection: Take time to reflect on your decisions, your point of view, and your attitudes that are shaped by your interaction with the environment.


Now that you are informed about the halo effect, don’t let yourself make judgments based on your first impression. Always give a chance to people and new products and ideas. This will also help you grow your circle. While awareness is not enough to stop you from experiencing the halo effect, the knowledge equips you to judge more effectively, and also realize if you are experiencing the halo effect.

Also, note that the halo effect is just one of the many biases experienced by human beings, and learning to tackle the halo effect does not mean that you won’t experience any kind of bias. Now that you are aware of it, you are one step closer to understanding how society navigates. If that’s something that interests you, explore more topics, learning not just about biases experienced by humans, but also many other factors at play in a social setting.

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