Halo-effect

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In Psychology the term halo-effect refers to a perceptional process whereby a person or specific traits of this person are judged according to a general impression one has created of this person. This general impression can be shaped by seemingly dominant or readily accessible traits of this person that have been perceived before and outshine following interpretations like a halo. A halo (Greek: hálos, also known as a nimbus) is defined as a ring of light that surrounds an object or a person.

Research (selected examples)

As a readily accessible trait physical attractiveness is a factor in the process that leads to the halo-effect. A good portion on research on the halo-effect focused on physical attractiveness. Studies of the 1960’s and 70’s concentrated on the question which traits are ascribed to individuals who are perceived as physically attractive. Furthermore research examined if these attributions reflect actual facts. The following studies are just a few examples.

Edward L. Thorndike (1920)

Edward L. Thorndike (1920) was the first to use the term "halo" to specify this cognitive bias. He pointed out that collected data on ratings of other individuals and their various traits (e.g. physical qualities, leadership qualities, personal qualities) reflects a common tendency to blend separate features together in order to derive a coherent picture of a person. Thorndike describes this process as a "constant error toward suffusing ratings of special features with a halo belonging to the individual as a whole". He estimated that the magnitude of the constant error of the halo is large, though its exact size cannot be determined for a lack of objective criteria. Nevertheless he demanded that, "in all work on ratings for qualities the observer should report the evidence, not a rating, and the rating should be given on the evidence to each quality separately without knowledge of the evidence concerning any other quality in the same individual."

Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972)

Dion, Berscheid and Walster (1972) found that subjects credited individuals rated as physically attractive with more socially desirable traits than those rated as average attractive or unattractive. According to the subjects judgements physically attractive individuals were seen as having better prospects of a happier social and professional life.

Snyder, Tanke and Berscheid (1977)

Snyder, Tanke and Berscheid (1977) attended to the self fulfilling prophecies of the stereotype physical attractiveness in dyadic interactions between men and women. Male subjects adapted their behaviour towards the female subjects according to the attractiveness of the woman’s photograph that was shown to them before they could engage in a conversation with them that was conducted over headphones. Thus male subjects did not know that the women they were talking to were not the same of the photographs they had been seen before. As a result Snyder et al. (1977) found that female subjects reacted to the behaviour displayed by male subjects according to their expectations concerning physical attractiveness and let the self fulfilling prophecy take effect.

Landy & Sigall (1974)

Landy & Sigall (1974) conducted a survey (“Beauty is Talent”) that measures the influence of the physical attractiveness on the performance evaluation of a person. They could show that the performance of a person is evaluated subject to his or her physical attractiveness. In the course of their study 60 male subjects should evaluate a (fictive) essay of a female student. In one test condition, an unattractive picture of the “author” was attached and in the other condition they got an attractive picture of the “author”. The more unattractive the “author” was, the worse the subjects judged her essay. The hypothesis is thus seen as confirmed: Physical Attractiveness influences not only the apperception of a person but also the apperception of his or her performance(s). Unfortunately, Landy & Sigall (1974) do not mention which psychological mechanisms form the basis of the halo-effect.

Manfred Schmitt (1992)

The analyses of Manfred Schmitt (1992) likewise concern the performance evaluation of a person depending on the experimental procurement of a first impression: The Landy & Sigall study should be repeated with German subjects. Surprisingly, the replication was not possible at all, which led to a number of further experiments to investigate potential reasons for the disappearance of the halo-effect.

  • Against the halo-hypothesis he could not prove a general effect of the attractiveness on the performance evaluation, quite the contrary was found: a tendency to a “contrast effect” (the more attractive the stimulus-person seemed to be the worse the subjects evaluated her performance).
  • Subsequently Schmitt accomplished the examination with a male “author”, but in this case he did not use a picture (attractive/unattractive) to influence the subjects but a vita (positive/negative) of the “author”. According to the first test the positive vita is preferred to the negative vita, there could no halo-effect on the essay evaluation be found but no “contrast effect” though.
  • Schmitt got to the hypothesis that subjects know or sense that the physical attractiveness of the stimulus-person influenced their judgement about her, so they compensate the own mistake in their judgement which causes a neutralization of the halo-effect / “contrast effect”. This could only be verified as a tendency, the results were not significant and the halo-effect on the performance evaluation of the stimulus person was considerably lower than the halo-effect on the estimation of the person. Nevertheless, the compensation-thesis is the most reliable explanation of the disappearance of the halo-effect.
  • influence of the fairness-conviction of the subjects on the compensation-effect. Schmitt expected that the fairness-conviction of a subject strengthens the compensation-effect of his or her judgement, but the expected influence was missing.


The experimental manipulation of the physical attractiveness of a person effects that she is analogical/accordant positive or negative appraised in her personality- or performance-traits. In contrast to Landy & Sigall’s (1974) findings the halo-effect did not influence the following judgement of a concrete performance of the judged person. This may be caused by the fact that performances contain more relevant information to judge someone than a picture or a vita of a person. The compensation-motif is the only hypothesis to explain the disappearance of the halo-effect and has to be explored further, because it disagrees with the assumption that the halo-effect is unconscious.

Dermer and Thiel (1975)

While most of the studies are concerned with positive ratings of physically attractive individuals there are a few which imply that there exists also a negative stereotype for physical attractiveness. Dermer and Thiel (1975) found that physically attractive individuals were more often judged as being conceited, selfish, materialistic and snobbish as average or unattractive individuals.

Farley, Chia and Allred (1998)

Farley, Chia and Allred (1998) attended to effects of physical attractiveness (and gender) on appraisals of professional competence. Probands were told to choose from six different dyads (attractive man vs. Attractive woman, 2. attractive man vs. Unattractive woman, 3. attractive man vs. Unattractive man, ...). When evenly attractive women were slightly preferred over men. This effect did not occur in the probands judgements on motivation and ability to work in the asked profession. Unattractive men were judged as more motivated and more capable than attractive men or women. When probands had to choose between two women the unattractive one was chosen. Thus in general unattractive candidates were preferred and judged as more competent.

Meta analysis

Langlois, Kalakanis, Rubenstein, Larson, Hallam and Smoot (2000) collected results of 900 studies on physical attractiveness and the halo-effect. Their meta analysis should show how physical attractiveness influences interactions of everyday life and evaluate relevant theories and established maxims. The collected theories can be separated into two groups. The first one comprises theories of socialization which attend to the effects of the stereotype of physical attractiveness on the individual including self fulfilling prophecies. The second group comprehends evolutionary theories which explore why beauty is seen as good. They interpret physical attractiveness as an indicator of health and an ability to reproduce successfully. The maxims Langlois et al. (2000) evaluated deny the halo-effect referring to physical attractiveness. They imply that attractiveness does not have an important impact on social interaction. At most it may effect the first impression of a person. Examples for such maxims are don’t judge a book by its cover or beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The Results of the 900 studies were categorized as follows:


  1. reliability of the ratings on attractiveness
  2. appraisals of attractive vs. unattractive individuals
  3. treatment of attractive vs. unattractive individuals
  4. behaviour of attractive vs. unattractive individuals
  5. self perception of attractive vs. unattractive individuals


  1. In the first category ratings on attractiveness from different studies were compared by determination of the coefficient of reliability. Within one culture this coefficient was r = .90. Subjects of different cultural backgrounds coincided with r = .88. The intercultural concordance was .94. These results document that there seems to be an intercultural standard for the assessment of physical attractiveness.
  2. The evaluated studies have shown that attractive individuals are judged more positive than unattractive ones. Especially in the field of professional competence attractive individuals gained higher ratings.
  3. The biggest differences in the treatment occurred in the amount of attention and gratification.
  4. Results on behaviour indicate that attractive people seem to have more success in their careers and are more popular.
  5. Differences in self-perception were very low.


According to the hypothesis of the theories of socialization attractive individuals were judged and treated differently than unattractive individuals. Though a causation between appraisal, treatment, behaviour and self-assessment could not be detected. As evolutionary health theories postulate the meta analysis confirm that beauty is an important factor in social interactions.


Research has shown that the halo-effect takes place unconsciously. Thus to avoid maintaining errors in personal appraisals it is important to sensitise the public to mechanisms like the halo-effect.


Literature

  • Ebner, B. (2002). Schönheit und der Halo-Effekt. In A. Hergovich (Ed.), Psychologie der Schönheit. Physische Attraktivität aus wissenschaftlicher Perspektive (pp. 187-204). Wien: WUV-Universitätsverlag.
  • Landy, D., & Sigall, H. (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer’s physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(3), 299-304.
  • Schmitt, M. (1992). Schönheit und Talent: Untersuchungen zum Verschwinden des Halo-Effekts. Zeitschrift für Experimentelle und Angewandte Psychologie, 39 (3), 475-492.
  • Thorndike, E.L. (1920). A constant error in physical ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 25-29.