The Halo Effect

How much you like someone, or how attractive they are, influences your other judgments of them.

Our judgments are associative and automatic, and so if we want to be objective we need to consciously control for irrelevant influences. This is especially important in a professional setting. Things like attractiveness can unduly influence issues as important as a jury deciding someone’s guilt or innocence. If someone is successful or fails in one area, this can also unfairly colour our expectations of them in another area.

If you notice that you’re giving consistently high or low marks across the board, it’s worth considering that your judgment may be suffering from the halo effect.

The halo effect is also sometimes referred to as the “physical attractiveness stereotype” and the “what is beautiful is also good” principle.


The term “halo effect” was coined in 1920 by Edward L. Thorndike, an American psychologist. It’s based on Thorndike’s observations of military officers during experiments that involved men “ranking” subordinates.

Before the officers even communicated with their subordinates, Thorndike had the superiors rank them based on character traits. These included leadership ability and intelligence.

Based on the results, Thorndike noted that positive and negative traits formed by the officers were based on unrelated traits that had to do with physical impressions.

For example, a tall and attractive subordinate was perceived as being the most intelligent. He was also ranked as overall “better” than the others. Thorndike found that physical appearances are the most influential in determining our overall impressions of another person’s character.

The theory

The overall basis of Thorndike’s theory is that people tend to create an overall impression of someone’s personality or characteristics based on one unrelated trait. This can result in either positive or negative perceptions. In either case, such subjective judgement can have negative consequences on your ability to think critically about the person’s other traits.

Thorndike’s work was elaborated on by another psychologist, Solomon Asch. He theorized that the way people form opinions, or adjectives, about others is highly reliant on first impression.

So, a positive first impression of someone could mean that you make positive assumptions about their skills and abilities. A negative first impression could mean you incorrectly assume that a person has negative qualities, such as laziness or apathy.

Work situations

The halo effect is regularly in effect at places of work, too. You might assume a formally dressed co-worker has a good work ethic. On the flipside, another co-worker in casual clothing might be judged as not having the same work ethic, though this could be completely untrue.

The same effects may be noted based on educational level. One classic study on a university level tested student perceptions on both a high-ranking professor and a guest lecturer. Based on these titles, the students made positive associations with the higher ranking academic that simply were not true, including a taller height.

The halo effect can also have an impact on income. A study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology found that, on average, attractive food servers earned approximately $1,200 more per year in tips than their unattractive counterparts.


The concepts of first impressions, identity, and familiarity can also fuel the halo effect in schools. For example, there’s some evidence that perceived attractiveness can lead to higher grades in school.

Another example of has to do with higher academic achievement possibly being linked to name familiarity. In one classic study, teachers graded essays written by fifth graders. The teachers assigned higher grades to the essays by students with common, popular, and attractive first names versus essays by students with rare, unpopular, and unattractive names.


It’s no secret that marketers use extensive methods to manipulate us as consumers so that we buy their products or services. They can even use the halo effect.

For example, have you found that you’re more drawn to a product or service because your favorite celebrity “endorses” it? Your positive feelings about that celebrity can make you perceive everything that celebrity associates with as positive, too.

The way a brand labels and markets their products can also determine whether you like the end result. For example, a food study published in Food Research International labeled the same food products (yogurt, potato chips, juice) “organic” or “conventional.” The “organic” products received higher ratings overall, and consumers were willing to pay more them.


Unfortunately, the halo effect can also play out in the field of medicine. A physician, for example, might judge a patient based on appearances without conducting tests first.

It’s also possible to judge someone’s health based on first impression. For instance, you might associate a person who has a “healthy glow” as someone who is happy. This may or may not be the case.

You might incorrectly associate someone who is skinny as someone who has perfect health, or vice-versa. One review of studies goes as far as to say that “attractiveness suppresses the accurate recognition of health.”