What Is the Halo Effect?

Physical attractiveness stereotype halo effect

Verywell / Joshua Seong

The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person ("He is nice!") impacts your evaluations of that person's specific traits ("He is also smart!"). Perceptions of a single trait can carry over to how people perceive other aspects of that person.

One great example of the halo effect in action is our overall impression of celebrities. People perceive them as attractive, successful, and often likable, so people also tend to see them as intelligent, kind, and funny.

What Is 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.

Physical appearance is often a major part of the halo effect. People who are considered attractive tend to be rated higher on other positive traits as well.

However, this effect doesn't just affect our perceptions of people based on their attractiveness. It can also encompass other traits as well. People who are sociable or kind, for example, may also be seen as more likable and intelligent. The halo effect makes it so that perceptions of one quality lead to biased judgments of other qualities.

The term itself uses the analogy of a halo to describe how it can affect perceptions.

When you see someone through the lens of the halo effect, you are seeing them cast in a similar light. That "halo" created by your perception of one characteristic covers them in the same way. 

In religious art, a halo is often portrayed over a saint's head, bathing the individual in a heavenly light to show that that person is good.

The History of the Halo Effect

Psychologist Edward Thorndike first coined the term in a 1920 paper titled "The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings." In the experiment described in the paper, Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate a variety of qualities in their subordinate soldiers. These characteristics included such things as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability.

Thorndike's goal was to determine how ratings of one quality bled over to assessments of other characteristics. He found that high ratings of a particular quality correlated to high ratings of other characteristics, while negative ratings of a specific quality also led to lower ratings of other characteristics.

"The correlations were too high and too even," Thorndike wrote. "For example, for the three raters next studied the average correlation for physique with intelligence is .31; for physique with leadership, .39; and for physique with character, .28."

So why do our overall impressions of a person create this halo that influences our evaluations of specific traits? Researchers have found that attractiveness is one factor that can play a role.

Several different studies have found that when we rate people as good-looking, we also tend to believe that they have positive personality traits and that they are more intelligent. One study even found that jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty of criminal behavior.

However, this attractiveness stereotype can also be a double-edged sword. Other studies have found that while people are more likely to ascribe a host of positive qualities to attractive people, they are also more likely to believe that good-looking individuals are vain, dishonest, and likely to use their attractiveness to manipulate others.

Impact of the Halo Effect

The halo effect may have an impact on a number of real-world settings.

In Education

Research has found that the halo effect may play a role in educational settings. Teachers may interact with students differently based on perceptions of attractiveness. Older research, for example, found that teachers had better expectations of kids that they rated as being more attractive.

Another study that looked at academic records of more than 4,500 students. A group of 28 people then rated the attractiveness of the students (based on a student ID photo) on a scale of 1 (very unattractive) to 10 (very attractive). Students were then divided into three groups based on these attractiveness assessments: below-average, average, and above-average.

Researchers then compared students' grades between classes taken in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting and those taken online. Researchers found that students who were rated as above-average in appearance earned significantly lower grades in online courses than they did in their traditional classes.

The halo effect can influence how teachers treat students, but it can also impact how students perceive teachers. In one study, researchers found that when an instructor was viewed as warm and friendly, students also rated them as more attractive, appealing, and likable.

In the Workplace

There are a number of ways that the halo effect can influence perceptions of others in work settings. For example, experts suggest that the halo effect is one of the most common biases affecting performance appraisals and reviews. Supervisors may rate subordinates based on the perception of a single characteristic rather than the whole of their performance and contribution. For example, a worker's enthusiasm or positive attitude may overshadow their lack of knowledge or skill, causing co-workers to rate them more highly than their actual performance justifies.

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.

Another study found that physical attractiveness has a positive effect not only on a person's self-confidence but also on their overall income and financial well-being.

Job applicants are also likely to feel the impact of the halo effect. If a prospective employer views the applicant as attractive or likable, they are more likely to also rate the individual as intelligent, competent, and qualified.

In Marketing

Marketers take advantage of the halo effect to sell products and services. When a celebrity spokesperson endorses a particular item, our positive evaluations of that individual can spread to our perceptions of the product itself.

The Reverse Halo (or Horn) Effect

As the name implies, the reverse halo effect occurs when a person judges another negatively based on only one known characteristic. That single trait colors all of the others for someone experiencing the reverse halo effect. For example, a person might assume that someone they view as unattractive is also unkind.

A Word From Verywell

So, the next time you trying to evaluate another person, whether it is deciding which political candidate to vote for or which movie to see on a Friday night, consider how your overall impressions of them might influence your evaluations of other characteristics.

Does your impression of a candidate being a good public speaker lead you to feel that they are also smart, kind, and hard-working? Does thinking that a particular actor is good-looking also lead you to think that they are a compelling actor?

Of course, being aware of the halo effect still doesn't make it easy to avoid its influence on our perceptions and decisions. The halo effect is just one of many biases that allow people to make snap decisions but also contributes to errors in judgment.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Rasmussen K. Halo Effect. In N. J. Salkind & K. Rasmussen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.; 2008.

  • Schneider FW, Gruman JA, Coutts LM. Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. London: SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2012.

  • Standing LG. Halo Effect. In M. S. Lewis-Black, A. Bryman, & T. F. Liao (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods, Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2004.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."