The Halo Effect

Definition and Background

What exactly is the Halo Effect?

A psychology textbook provides a "simplistic" definition of the Halo effect as a subjective bias about a person's one outstanding trait extending to influence the total judgment of that person.

E. L. Thorndike's 1920 paper titled "A Constant Error on Psychological Rating", published in Journal of Applied Psychology first documented this perception error (wahrnehmungsfehler) with regard to rating employees.  This has also been followed up by Phil Rosenzweig's book on the same topic called The Halo Effect... and Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.

Thorndike therein defined the halo effect as "a problem that arises in data collection when there is carry-over from one judgment to another."

Halo Effect Picture
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He further expanded that it is " extension of an overall impression of a person (or one particular outstanding trait) to influence the total judgment of that person. The effect is to evaluate an individual high on many traits because of a belief that the individual is high on one trait. Similar to this is the 'devil effect,' whereby a person evaluates another as low on many traits because of a belief that the individual is low on one trait which is assumed to be critical."

So, to clarify, if possible, when an individual is found to possess one desirable trait, then that individual is automatically assumed to have many other desirable traits as well. A kind of an "angelic halo" surrounds the person, in the eyes of the beholder, and they can do no wrong. If a person is bestowed with good physical beauty, then this person is also presumed to possess a host of other positive attributes as well, such as social competence, intellectual competence, and personal adjustment.

The inverse phenomenon called the "Devil Effect," and sometimes the "Horn Effect", doesn't seem to get as much attention, even though its impact is just as prevalent in society. Here, if a person seems particularly deficient in a critical trait, then that person is automatically assumed to be deficient in many other traits as well, related or otherwise. For example, an employee who is constantly "late" to work (perhaps due to other non-work responsibilities in the morning) is assumed to be negligent in their work-related duties, not committed to the job/company/project, and perhaps even lazy overall.

Ultimately, these faulty biases may prove to become factual due to the Pygmalion effect, or "self-fulfilling prophecy ", further reinforcing future errors in perception due to bias and predisposition by the observer. The person working long hours (perhaps compensating for technical incompetence), assumed to be a good worker is given greater opportunity and thus attains greater, albeit undue, career advancement (cf: The Peter Principle). Conversely, the worker who dresses shabbily is assumed to care little about their job, and therefore bypassed for greater opportunity when the situation arises, regardless of suitability or capacity otherwise.  Essentially, is phenomenon is a psycho-social application of the Law of Proximity, whereby certain unrelated observations, found in the comparable subjects in a narrow sample set, are assumed to have a high correlation, when, in fact, no such correlation exists.

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There are a number of different ways in which the psychology of the halo effect may manifest:

  • Superficial Misperception

    Instead of seeing the observable behaviors of a person, instead we see a certain picture. From this picture we draw conclusions about them which have no bearing in reality.

  • Social Bias

    A person who is highly connected or good friends with those deemed to possess positive traits is erroneously assumed to possess those same good traits in "birds of a feather flock together" fashion.

  • Demographic Bias

    If we know the societal role or other demographic information, the person targeted by the halo effect (or devil effect) will be perceived as "just like" all others who have held a similar role. We do not see the distinctions between people of this group and instead simply see:

    Blue Collar Worker
    Inner City Dweller

  • Flawed Logic

    Noticing only one or two characteristics, unrelated conclusions are drawn based upon personal experience, social bias, or group norming.

    People who smile are honest. 
    Blondes are unintelligent.

  • Contrast Sensitivity

    Within a person and/or a person's group, certain desirable characteristics are noticeably absent. For example, when there is a superstar in a group, it's very easy to misinterpret the actions of those who would otherwise be deemed at least average performers as poor performers, simply because of the context of the evaluation.

  • Similarity Sensitivity

    With a person or group, characteristics are noticed which are very similar to our own or those we respect greatly. While similar (no pun intended) to the Social Bias listed above, instead of having a desirable social standing, instead this person possesses actual traits which are noticeably similar to those who have created a strong bias in the observer. So, while the person is obviously a distinct and unique individual, the fact that he reminds you of your shiftless, no good, brother-in-law, impacts further observations. 

  • Lasting First Impressions

    The very first impression left with the observer overrides all subsequent impressions, until a very strong and distinct impression is made to alter the existing path. The first impression is a psychology concept similar to that of inertia or momentum in the physical sciences.

  • Yard Effect (or Hof Effekt)

    The perception of a person orients itself at few conspicuous characteristics. All other characteristics are ignored. The effect describes the tendency, in order to form a certain characteristic of a person a "yard" and derive from it spreading acceptance. A well dressed lady also as wealthy and more educated than the same lady in a Jogging suit.


Ultimately, the halo effect, much like many psychology concepts, can be used as a tool for motivating others to a desired end, or a phenomenon to specifically be alert to when relating to and evaluating situations and people.

Left alone, the halo effect can negatively impact all areas of management.

Interviewers can wrongly infer that a candidate has a slew of required characteristics or attributes, simply because the candidate exhibited others which were desirable.

Managers responsible for employee ratings, can let the strong rating of one critical factor influence the ratings for all other factors exhibit the halo effect. The halo effect is also demonstrated when an overall global impression influences ratings. This problem occurs with employees who are friendly (or unfriendly) toward you or especially strong (or weak) in one skill.

Having clear and specific ratings standards can help avoid the halo effekt. Another means to traverse the hazards of the haloeffect is completely assess the performance on one performance factor before moving on to the next factor. Finally, simply being aware of the halo effekt and how it works may afford one the opportunity more objective judgment and to be able to see if its harmful effects are at work.

Making Friends with the Halo Effect

But just as selective perception is an adversary of logical judgement, so is it an ally of a strong negotiator or marketing professional. Since both of these professions leverage the use of "street psychology", any weapon to be found that can be used to ones advantage is fair game.  So the power of the Halo Effekt is certainly enticing in these areas, but how does one harness the power of the HaloEffect?

NLP rapport building techniques such as pacing exponentially increase the perception that the pacer is very similar to the observer.  This can cause the observer of these pacing tactics to view a halo around the pacer and more readily act in the manner desired by the NLP practitioner.

Leveraging well known social biases can also be an effective means of securing favor.  For example, people who wear glasses are frequently perceived as more intelligent.  Doctors with white lab coats and stethoscopes are perceived as more capable.  Someone who is "dressed for success" cares more about doing a good job.  And the list goes on.  Rather than fighting these socialized norms, catering to them can allow one to slingshot from existing biases and harness their power to attain a more desirable decision from another party.

A few well known pieces of advice are actually invitations to leverage the haol effekt.

"You are known by the company you keep."  This nugget of wisdom just comes right out and says it.  Others are judging you, and one of the factors they consider is your peer group.  By maintaining a peer group of high performers, aside from the self improving psycho-social benefits, this adage tells us, others will view us favorable or unfavorably based on this one known factor.

"You only have one chance to make a good first impression." While this tidbit is not so forthcoming as the previous, on can readily infer from it that a first impression can have a powerful and lasting impact. So, if the first thing you or your company does for a new client is tremendous, and exhibits overwhelming dedication, service, and talent -- all subsequent actions will be viewed within this hlao. Delays, issues with quality or workmanship, and even incompetence can be overlooked. Citing prior successes as a benchmark, singularly negative events and even strings of events can be completely sidestepped having delivered well initially.


Just as with any powerful tool such as a gun, knife, hammer, axe, whether the tool is good or bad, useful or damaging, all depends on your skill with that tool and whether its in your hand or that of an aggressor. Familiarity with such tools does not guarantee that your proficiency will not cause harm to another.  On the other hand, a lack of familiarity with these concepts will result in your more readily succumbing to their effects.



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