Do You See Halos Around Everyone?

Originally Posted 10/10/13

Treating others fairly is a trait most of us aspire to and admire. To badly paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all of us want to judge our fellow humans by the depth of their character. Yet psychologists, through numerous studies, find that virtually all of us exhibit a form of cognitive dissonance known as the “halo effect.”

This interesting psychic phenomenon makes it difficult for us to judge others dispassionately. What is the halo effect? Simply stated, it’s when a person possesses a particular trait which then colors our interpretation and relationship to that person, affecting our perception of many other traits that the particular person may possess. The halo effect is perhaps best illustrated by example.

Most of us are now aware that among males, height is a trait that creates the halo effect. Tall men are deemed to be more desirable mates, better leaders, and are paid more by their employers. One particular aspect of a male -- how tall he is -- creates the perception (which is often a misperception) that the vertically endowed man must also have other, generally positive, attributes.

With women, our current societal perception of beauty creates a halo effect. What makes a woman beautiful may change over periods of time, and even during one particular epoch, may be different between different cultures. Whereas a few hundred years ago in Europe, the Rubenesque female was considered the pinnacle of perfection, and in the late 60s, every girl wanted to be waif-like similar to Twiggy, we seem to have currently, at least in the West, settled upon a thinner model then Ruben’s, yet more robust than the 95 pound elf. Regardless, when a woman is recognized as being beautiful, studies have shown we also assume she is happier, more pleasant, and more successful.

The halo effect carries over into business and institutional settings. Taller men get paid more. Prettier women get hired in preference to plain janes. Moreover, in performance reviews, if a particular employee, whether male or female, scores highly in an area that the company prizes, the evaluator will almost always score that employee high in other areas of performance measurement. Even institutions which would seem to operate in a most rational manner fall victim to this phenomenon.  Thus, in a well-known study of military pilots, those who were skilled at flying an aircraft were almost universally deemed to be leadership material.

The halo effect afflicts us all. It crosses cultural lines, the centuries of time, and applies regardless of other human-defined ways of differentiation such as ethnicity, religious background, and so forth. In other words, the perceiver’s background is irrelevant.  It does not matter how you define yourself - you will still fall victim to using the halo effect in your relationships with others.  Why?

It’s one way our brains use to make sense of our world, and as an aid or shortcut to process the vast amount of information our senses take in each and every moment. Yet, it is a dissonant way of thinking, and, particularly in business circles, can lead to inappropriate or even disastrous results. So how can you avoid being influenced by the halo effect?

Again, numerous studies show the pervasiveness of this cognitive shortcut. The best that social science can tell us is that awareness is key. If you understand that the halo effect is present, is utilized by you on a daily basis, yet can create numerous misperceptions in how you view your version of reality, you have taken a giant step towards minimizing its impact. Recognizing can lead to clarifying, which in turn can afford you a more accurate view of the interpersonal relationships in which you engage.  Moreover, you can also use the halo effect to your advantage.  For example, if you know that seminar participants respond better to a woman presenter who wears a business suit instead of a dress, should you consider wearing a suit?


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