What is the halo effect?

What is the halo effect?

The halo effect is one of the most well known cognitive biases of modern psychology, and can be observed very frequently in everyday life.
It consists in the realization of an erroneous generalization from a single characteristic, or quality, of an object or a person. That is, we make a judgment from which we presume the rest of the characteristics of the subject being evaluated.
This effect was discovered, and named, by the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike in 1920, from a study in the military, during which he was able to observe that officers attributed positive characteristics to their superiors. once they had discovered a positive quality at home.
Conversely, they saw only negative elements in their personality from the moment they had assessed a negative quality in their behavior.

The halo effect in everyday life

The halo effect manifests itself continuously in our life. For example, if a person has a good, or very attractive physique, we give him a whole series of positive characteristics, without having even verified that he really does. It is assumed that this person is intelligent, seductive, pleasant, etc.

Conversely, if someone seems ugly, it is normal to think immediately that it is a boring, or unfriendly person.

This effect is also very present when one knows the profession of an individual, by quickly putting him in a "box" if one discovers that he is doctor, carpenter or receptionist. This technique is widely used in marketing to improve the image of certain products, or to position a brand in a given market.

The halo effect can also be observed in job interviews. As soon as the person conducting the interview notices a positive feature in the candidate, she will ignore her defects, or at least pay less attention to them, and vice versa.

The experience of Nisbett and Wilson

After the discovery of Thorndike, Nisbett and Wilson conducted a study at the University of Michigan, on two groups of students (118 individuals).

The authors of the experiment showed each group the video of a teacher giving a class. In one of them, he was affable and cordial, while in the other, he behaved in an authoritarian and imperative manner. To schematize, a video in which he showed positive qualities, and another in which he revealed negative characteristics.

After that, each group had to describe the physical aspect of the teacher. And this is where the study makes sense.

The results of the experiment

Students who saw the teacher's positive side described him as a likeable and attractive person, while the subjects of the other group qualified him with unfavorable adjectives.

But, the study went even further. After this description, the authors asked the students if the teacher's attitude could have influenced their assessment of his physical appearance. And all responded negatively, saying their opinions were totally objective.

In summary, this study highlights the reality of the halo effect, and we all have a poor record of its influence on our assessment of others and our environment.

We all believe that we have objective judgments, but this is not the case, which confirms this proverb that we all know: the first impression is the right one.

However, this statement must be tempered because this phenomenon does not occur in all cases, and other variables, such as context or affect, may also have some influence.

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