How the ‘Halo Effect’ Impacts the Way We See Others

The “halo effect” — or, as it’s scientifically known, “exaggerated emotional coherence” — doesn’t receive the attention it should. The halo effect occurs when we judge others positively in one aspect of their lives (appearance, wit, charm, industriousness) and then apply positive feelings to them for other, often unrelated areas (problem-solving, leadership, sales prowess).

Edward Thorndike first observed the halo effect in 1920, when he analyzed military officer rankings of subordinates. If a soldier boasted a strong physical appearance, he also typically was considered to have impressive leadership abilities. If he were loyal, he also was rated as highly intelligent. The correlations proved way too consistent for Thorndike, who determined that officers’ impressions in one area of a soldier’s experience too often colored their impressions in another.

That practice holds true today. If someone is attractive, he also usually is considered smart. If a person appears enthusiastic, she often also is perceived as hard working. Friendly? Must be a good leader, too.

Priming the Halo Pump

When it comes to evaluating people, first is always foremost. People remember the first piece of data they receive about a person, and their subsequent impressions are shaped by that data.

One of the earliest and most enduring studies of first impressions and the halo effect was completed by Solomon Asch, who asked people to evaluate the personalities of two individuals named Alan and Ben.

Alan was: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben was: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Obviously, the series of adjectives used to describe Alan is simply reversed for Ben. Here’s the catch: Although the same words appeared in a different sequence, test subjects always viewed Alan significantly more favorably than Ben. Even Alan’s negative characteristics were seen more positively, because of the positivity applied to the initial descriptors.

If someone you view positively possesses a stubbornness streak, you consider him a person who takes a principled stand. On the other hand, if you already have a negative impression of that person, the stubbornness can be seen as a sign of inflexibility and unwillingness to consider new ideas.

Next time, I’ll explain how you can leverage your own “halo” and what to do when you’re not exactly an angel!

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