What are Halo Effects?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Halo effects are psychological tendencies studied in some detail by the field of cognitive psychology. They occur when one good quality about a person, say, they're a fan of the same sports team - leads us to over-attribute good qualities to them in other areas. In a school context, students that get an "A" on the first piece of homework they turn in might end up getting undue slack from a teacher on further grading, because the teacher expects them to continue producing A-quality work. The inverse of the halo effect is the "devil effect" or the "horns effect," where one instance of bad performance causes the victim to be attributed negatively in an unfair fashion in the future.

A good grade on a first homework assignment could produce a halo effect.
A good grade on a first homework assignment could produce a halo effect.

The halo effect is a cognitive bias, one among hundreds, a "mental shortcut" or even "cognitive illusion" that causes people to behave in ways that an unbiased observer empirically and systematically considers unjustified. Because our entire lives are permeated by these cognitive judgments, studies of biases like the halo effect go down to the very fabric that underlies our society.

People may attribute positive things to a fellow fan of the same sports team.
People may attribute positive things to a fellow fan of the same sports team.

In one famous study, commanding officers were asked to rate their soldiers on an array of traits, both good and bad. Analysis of the results showed that positive and negative qualities were strongly correlated with one another. This shows that people tend to paint others with a broad brush - "good in general" or "bad in general." These attributions are made early, sometimes in the first few seconds of meeting someone (hence the piece of wisdom that says first impressions are so important), creating anchoring effects days, weeks, or even years after the fact. Halo effects are a serious problem in recruiting for Human Resources departments, where studies have shown time and time again that past behavior is a way better predictor of future behavior that interviewer impressions.

In professional auto shows, halo cars are super-nice cars that are put on display so that the awe elicited by them leaks over into the whole show. We see this effect not just in car shows but in organizations, museums, universities, governments, and so on. The province of Alberta, in Canada, has even gone so far as to pay leading scientists $20 million US Dollars (USD) to move to their area and perform research there for the next 10 years. Clearly not all of these scientists will produce results for the province worth over $20 million USD, so the only alternative explanation is that government officials are trying to produce a halo effect around their province and cities, to attract promising young researchers.

The halo effect is deep and omnipresent. Every one of us likely falls prey to it everyday. Examine your own thought processes consciously, and you'll see that halo effects permeate practically every judgment you make - including your judgment of the quality of this website and the humble author of this article.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@Moldova- I know what you mean. I also think that the halo effect was attributed to Obama as well. People felt that he had superior speaking skills and enjoyed his speeches. Many Americans attributed the halo effect with Obama because they assumed that since he spoke well he must be able to do everything else well too.

This led to much disappointment because none of the attributes that people gave Obama actually suited him. We get disappointed with the halo effect because we are expecting perfection which is really unattainable.

Obama had no leadership experience and only served part of his only term as a senator. However, this did not stop people from experiencing the halo effect with Obama.


@Mutsy- I have had that happen to me too. I think that sometimes the halo effect can occur if you hear from another party that a person is wonderful or a service or product of a company is wonderful.

Because of the positive feedback you attribute a halo effect on the person, product or service. This happens a lot in the restaurant industry. There will be a lot of buzz for a restaurant.

People will talk about how difficult it is to get a reservation and when you finally go to the restaurant you are disappointed because the food does not live up to your expectations. This is attributed to the perceived halo effect.


@Laluna- What a great point. I know that I attributed the halo effect for my son’s teacher because I knew how she helped my friend’s daughter when she was in her class.

The little girl was struggling in math and reading and by the end of the year the girl was reading and doing math at grade level. This impressed me about the teacher and so I developed positive expectations of her in everything.

However, I was disappointed to see how she did not comfort her students when they were visibly shaken by the thunderstorm during a recent visit to celebrate my son’s birthday.

Some students even went underneath the table and the teacher did not budge from her seat. It was not until that I explained how distressed some of the students were that she moved some of them closer to her.

I had previously attributed the halo effect on this teacher because of her past actions, but now I have a more balanced view of her. Just because she is a comprehensive teacher does not mean that she is necessarily caring.


In a study done with wine the same halo effect was found. Wine that the participants thought was from California was rated better then the wine said to be from North Dakota, which is not particularly known for wine production.

The wine in effect was the same, only the label was different. Not only did the participants believe that the wine was better, but even the food they ate was said to taste better with "California" wine. It appears that our expectations play a big role in our lives.

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