The Halo Effect

The af­fect heuris­tic is how an over­all feel­ing of good­ness or bad­ness con­tributes to many other judg­ments, whether it’s log­i­cal or not, whether you’re aware of it or not. Sub­jects told about the benefits of nu­clear power are likely to rate it as hav­ing fewer risks; stock an­a­lysts rat­ing un­fa­mil­iar stocks judge them as gen­er­ally good or gen­er­ally bad—low risk and high re­turns, or high risk and low re­turns—in defi­ance of or­di­nary eco­nomic the­ory, which says that risk and re­turn should cor­re­late pos­i­tively.

The halo effect is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the af­fect heuris­tic in so­cial psy­chol­ogy. Robert Cial­dini sum­ma­rizes:1

Re­search has shown that we au­to­mat­i­cally as­sign to good-look­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als such fa­vor­able traits as tal­ent, kind­ness, hon­esty, and in­tel­li­gence (for a re­view of this ev­i­dence, see Eagly, Ash­more, Makhi­jani, and Longo, 1991). Fur­ther­more, we make these judg­ments with­out be­ing aware that phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness plays a role in the pro­cess. Some con­se­quences of this un­con­scious as­sump­tion that “good-look­ing equals good” scare me. For ex­am­ple, a study of the 1974 Cana­dian fed­eral elec­tions found that at­trac­tive can­di­dates re­ceived more than two and a half times as many votes as unattrac­tive can­di­dates (Efran and Pat­ter­son, 1976). De­spite such ev­i­dence of fa­voritism to­ward hand­some poli­ti­ci­ans, fol­low-up re­search demon­strated that vot­ers did not re­al­ize their bias. In fact, 73 per­cent of Cana­dian vot­ers sur­veyed de­nied in the strongest pos­si­ble terms that their votes had been in­fluenced by phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance; only 14 per­cent even al­lowed for the pos­si­bil­ity of such in­fluence (Efran and Pat­ter­son, 1976). Vot­ers can deny the im­pact of at­trac­tive­ness on electabil­ity all they want, but ev­i­dence has con­tinued to con­firm its trou­bling pres­ence (Budesheim and DePaola, 1994).

A similar effect has been found in hiring situ­a­tions. In one study, good groom­ing of ap­pli­cants in a simu­lated em­ploy­ment in­ter­view ac­counted for more fa­vor­able hiring de­ci­sions than did job qual­ifi­ca­tions—this, even though the in­ter­view­ers claimed that ap­pear­ance played a small role in their choices (Mack and Rainey, 1990). The ad­van­tage given to at­trac­tive work­ers ex­tends past hiring day to pay­day. Economists ex­am­in­ing US and Cana­dian sam­ples have found that at­trac­tive in­di­vi­d­u­als get paid an av­er­age of 12–14 per­cent more than their unattrac­tive cowork­ers (Hamer­mesh and Bid­dle, 1994).

Equally un­set­tling re­search in­di­cates that our ju­di­cial pro­cess is similarly sus­cep­ti­ble to the in­fluences of body di­men­sions and bone struc­ture. It now ap­pears that good-look­ing peo­ple are likely to re­ceive highly fa­vor­able treat­ment in the le­gal sys­tem (see Castel­low, Wuen­sch, and Moore, 1991; and Downs and Lyons, 1990, for re­views). For ex­am­ple, in a Penn­syl­va­nia study (Ste­wart, 1980), re­searchers rated the phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness of 74 sep­a­rate male defen­dants at the start of their crim­i­nal tri­als. When, much later, the re­searchers checked court records for the re­sults of these cases, they found that the hand­some men had re­ceived sig­nifi­cantly lighter sen­tences. In fact, at­trac­tive defen­dants were twice as likely to avoid jail as unattrac­tive defen­dants. In an­other study—this one on the dam­ages awarded in a staged neg­li­gence trial—a defen­dant who was bet­ter look­ing than his vic­tim was as­sessed an av­er­age amount of $5,623; but when the vic­tim was the more at­trac­tive of the two, the av­er­age com­pen­sa­tion was $10,051. What’s more, both male and fe­male ju­rors ex­hibited the at­trac­tive­ness-based fa­voritism (Kulka and Kessler, 1978).

Other ex­per­i­ments have demon­strated that at­trac­tive peo­ple are more likely to ob­tain help when in need (Ben­son, Karabenic, and Lerner, 1976) and are more per­sua­sive in chang­ing the opinions of an au­di­ence (Chaiken, 1979) . . .

The in­fluence of at­trac­tive­ness on rat­ings of in­tel­li­gence, hon­esty, or kind­ness is a clear ex­am­ple of bias—es­pe­cially when you judge these other qual­ities based on fixed text—be­cause we wouldn’t ex­pect judg­ments of hon­esty and at­trac­tive­ness to con­flate for any le­gi­t­i­mate rea­son. On the other hand, how much of my per­ceived in­tel­li­gence is due to my hon­esty? How much of my per­ceived hon­esty is due to my in­tel­li­gence? Find­ing the truth, and say­ing the truth, are not as widely sep­a­rated in na­ture as look­ing pretty and look­ing smart . . .

But these stud­ies on the halo effect of at­trac­tive­ness should make us sus­pi­cious that there may be a similar halo effect for kind­ness, or in­tel­li­gence. Let’s say that you know some­one who not only seems very in­tel­li­gent, but also hon­est, al­tru­is­tic, kindly, and serene. You should be sus­pi­cious that some of these per­ceived char­ac­ter­is­tics are in­fluenc­ing your per­cep­tion of the oth­ers. Maybe the per­son is gen­uinely in­tel­li­gent, hon­est, and al­tru­is­tic, but not all that kindly or serene. You should be sus­pi­cious if the peo­ple you know seem to sep­a­rate too cleanly into dev­ils and an­gels.

And—I know you don’t think you have to do it, but maybe you should—be just a lit­tle more skep­ti­cal of the more at­trac­tive poli­ti­cal can­di­dates.

1Robert B. Cial­dini, In­fluence: Science and Prac­tice (Bos­ton: Allyn & Ba­con, 2001).