The Halo Effect: Definition and Examples in the Workplace
Updated 7 September 2023
The halo effect is a psychosocial phenomenon that involves judging others on certain attributes based on a prior positive judgment of a specific attribute. For instance, you might suppose that someone is nice because they dress professionally, which may not be true. Learning more about this cognitive bias can help you recognise its influence on your perception and work and help you create more accurate judgements. In this article, we explore what the halo effect is, discuss the impact of this bias and explain how to avoid it.
What is the halo effect?
The halo effect describes the tendency to assume that people who might have one positive trait automatically have other positive traits as well. Unfortunately, this effect isn't an accurate way of forming impressions of people, as it frequently causes an overestimation of someone's positive qualities. The term ‘halo' references the symbol of a ring of light that often appears in paintings of holy people. With this bias, you may see one positive trait as an indication that a person has more good traits. For instance, if someone is kind and sociable, you might assume they're also intelligent and likeable.
With this bias, your perception of a singular quality in a person leads you to judge their other qualities. Psychologist Edward Thorndike named this cognitive bias in 1920. In an experiment, he tasked military personnel with reviewing the characteristics of their team members. Some of the characteristics were leadership, loyalty, physical appearance, dependability and intelligence. The goal of this experiment was to determine how the rating of one quality influenced the assessment of other characteristics. He discovered that when these soldiers gave high ratings for specific qualities, they gave similarly high ratings for other characteristics as well.
Traits associated with this bias
Physical attributes like height, eye colour and hair colour can contribute to this effect. Although physical attractiveness is a common characteristic involved in this cognitive bias, it isn't the only one. Positive character traits like having a sense of humour, honesty, good manners, flexibility, professionalism, kindness and patience might play just as important a role in creating an impression of another person.
The impact of this bias in different settings
This cognitive bias can appear in a variety of settings. Depending on your career, here are some areas where you might notice this bias:
This phenomenon can play an important role in education. Teachers might be prone to interacting with students differently depending on their perception of their physical attractiveness or positive traits. Teachers might also expect better performances from certain students whom they perceive as having good characteristics. For example, some teachers may unintentionally have a favourite student. They may have these preferences based on a good trait, such as being able to answer questions in class or politeness. Without knowing, a teacher might rank certain students higher than others if they're perceived to have a single positive trait.
If you work in education, it's important that you stay aware of this effect so you can intentionally work to avoid it. This can help you treat all students fairly.
This phenomenon is also common in an office setting, and it might often factor into peer reviews and performance appraisals. For example, managers may rate their subordinates based on one characteristic rather than considering their contributions and performances. If an employee displays enthusiasm frequently during work, this might lead to a positive impression that could overshadow their lack of skill or knowledge. Thus, they might receive a higher rating than their performance deserves.
It's also easier to judge an employee who's always dressed formally as having a good work ethic while judging an employee who's dressed casually as not having a good enough work ethic. This cognitive bias can also be factored into the interview process for a job. For example, a recruiter or hiring manager might judge a candidate as being qualified and competent if they first perceive them as intelligent. This positive perception of the candidate might influence the interviewer's decision to recommend them for the job.
Marketers have also learned to leverage this phenomenon to sell their services and products. One type of marketing that epitomises this bias is influencer marketing. Companies may ask influencers to advertise products or services because they have a strong fan base. Once a celebrity endorses a product or service, the individual's positive evaluation of the product influences their fans to make a purchase because of their positive perception of the celebrity.
This bias can also exist in the medical field. For example, without first conducting a test, a physician might simply judge that a patient is in excellent health based on their physical appearance alone. The presence of this bias might be even more profound when assessing a person's mental health. This is because it might be easier to assume that people who give off an impression of mental stability are mentally healthy when in reality, they may require further evaluation and treatment. Medical professionals may use tests and other data to help them avoid this bias.
How to avoid the halo effect
In many cases, the halo effect is hard to actively notice as it requires a keen awareness of one's thoughts and impressions. Here are several steps you can take to help you avoid this bias:
1. Practise mindfulness
Improving your awareness is the first step towards navigating around errors in judgment. You can achieve this through simple and short meditation sessions. Even a short meditation session could improve your clarity of thought and self-awareness. Although there are various methods of meditation, the simplest way might be to just sit in a comfortable position, be it in a chair or cross-legged on the floor or bed, close your eyes and begin breathing deeply. Focus on your breath, and if any intrusive thoughts appear, you can simply observe them and let them pass without reacting to them.
With enough practice, you might become adept at identifying this bias in your interactions with your peers. For example, if you're in a meeting and a fellow employee is speaking, you might notice that you've already approved of them without listening to what they have to say. Due to having a greater awareness of your thoughts, you might realise that this is because the employee had made a good impression on you by being well-dressed and speaking confidently. Having identified this lapse of judgment in your thinking, you can now listen to the presentation from a more neutral perspective.
2. Practise cognitive debiasing
One way to reduce the influence of this bias is by considering different cognitive debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process. For instance, if you're aware of this bias, you can mitigate its effect by creating at least two impressions of a person when you meet them for the first time. This allows you to postpone making any inaccurate assessments until you've gathered enough information about them to determine the validity of your impressions.
In the workplace, this technique might be beneficial in preventing inaccurate judgments. For example, a recruiter or hiring manager might prolong the decision-making process after an interview. Doing this prevents them from making a hasty decision while under the influence of this cognitive bias. Now the interviewer can assess the candidate's skills and suitability for the role without prejudice. They could also schedule a panel meeting with their peers to discuss the candidate, as the presence of varying opinions might help highlight and defuse any biases. This is similar to creating two impressions of a person during a first meeting.
3. Stay aware of the horn effect
The halo effect may exist in reverse in a psychological phenomenon known as 'the horn effect.' This effect is also a cognitive bias, but in this case, a negative impression of someone or an object in one area might overshadow other areas and define your overall perception of the person or object. As you consider the halo bias, it's essential that you're also checking for whether the horn effect is present. For instance, you might notice that you don't have a positive impression of your fellow employee's work ethic because you find their sense of humour offensive.
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