The halo effect is a classic conclusion of social psychology.
It is the idea that global assessments of a person (eg, it is appreciable) merge into the judgment of his or her specific traits (eg, she is intelligent).
Hollywood stars perfectly demonstrate the halo effect.
As they are often attractive and friendly, we naturally assume that they are also intelligent, friendly, good judgment, and so on.
That is, until we find evidence (sometimes abundant) to the contrary.
In the same way, politicians use the “halo” effect to their advantage by trying to sound warm and friendly while speaking little of substance.
People tend to believe that their policies are good, because the person looks good. It's so simple.
But you might have thought that we could detect such erroneous judgments simply by introspecting and, in a way, backtracking our thinking processes over the initial mistake.
In the 1970s, Richard Nisbett, a renowned socialist psychologist, began to demonstrate how little we had access to our thinking processes in general and the halo effect in particular.
Nisbett and Wilson wanted to examine how participating students make their judgments about a speaker.
(Nisbett and Wilson, 1977)
Students learned that research examines teacher assessments.
In particular, experimenters were interested in whether judgments varied according to the amount of exposure that students had given to a particular lecturer.
It was a total lie.
In fact, the students had been divided into two groups that would watch two different videos of the same speaker, who had a strong Belgian accent (that's relevant!).
One group watched the speaker answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner.
The second group saw exactly the same person answering the questions in a cold and distant way.
The experimenters ensured that the speaker was more sympathetic.
In one, he seemed to love teaching and students and in the other, he appeared to be a much more authoritarian figure who did not like to teach at all.
After each group of students viewed the videos, they were asked to inform the speaker of their physical appearance, manner, and even appearance (the manners were similarly preserved in both videos) .
In keeping with the halo effect, students who saw the lecturer's “hearty” incarnation had found him more attractive, his manners more sympathetic and even his accent more appealing.
This was not surprising in that it supported previous work on the halo effect.
The surprise was that the students had no idea why they were giving the voter a higher rating, even after they were given every chance.
After the study, it was suggested that the fact that they liked the electrician could affect their ratings.
Despite this, most said that the fact that they liked the speaker did not affect their assessment of individual characteristics.
For those who had seen the badass speaker, the results were even worse – students had misunderstood it.
Some felt that their assessments of individual characteristics had actually affected their overall assessment of attachment.
Even after that, the experimenters were not satisfied.
They again interviewed students to ask if it was possible that their overall assessment of the speaker had an impact on their assessment of the speaker's attributes. Yet the students told them that was not the case.
They were convinced that they had judged the physical appearance, mannerisms, and accent of the speaker regardless of appearance.
Common Uses of the Halo Effect
The halo effect itself is fascinating and is now well known in the business world. According to John Marconi's “Reputation Marketing,” books with “Harvard Classics” on the front may require twice the price of the exact book without the Harvardendorsement.
The same is true in the fashion industry.
Adding the name of a well-known fashion designer to a simple jean can inflate their price considerably.
But what this experiment demonstrates is that although we can understand the effect of halo intellectually, we often do not know when it actually happens.
This makes it such a useful effect for marketers and politicians.
Naturally, we make the adjustments demonstrated in this experiment without even realizing it.
And then, even when it is reported to us, we can always deny it.
So, the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of designer jeans or decide if you like someone, ask yourself if the halo effect works.
Are you really evaluating the character traits of the person or product you believed?
Alternatively, does a global aspect mingle with your specific judgment?
This simple check could save you from voting for the wrong person, wasting your money, or rejecting someone who would be a good friend.