The M+G+R Foundation
Effect: When Your Own Mind is a
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'halo effect' is a classic finding in social psychology. It is the idea
that global evaluations about a person (e.g. she is likable) bleed
over into judgments about their specific traits (e.g. she is
intelligent). Hollywood stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly.
Because they are often attractive and likable we naturally assume they
are also intelligent, friendly, display good judgment and so on. That
is, until we come across (sometimes plentiful) evidence to the contrary.
the same way politicians use the 'halo effect' to their advantage by
trying to appear warm and friendly, while saying little of any
substance. People tend to believe their policies are good, because the
person appears good. It's that simple.
But you would think we
could pick up these sorts of mistaken judgments by simply
introspecting and, in a manner of speaking, retrace our thought
processes back to the original mistake. In the 1970s, well known social
psychologist Richard Nisbett set out to demonstrate how little access
we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo
effect in particular.
Personality appeal of
and Wilson wanted to examine the way student participants made
judgments about a lecturer (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Students were
told the research was investigating teacher evaluations. Specifically,
they were told, the experimenters were interested in whether judgments
varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular
lecturer. This was a total lie.
In fact the students had been
divided into two groups who were going to watch two different videos of
the same lecturer, who happened to have a strong Belgian accent (this
is relevant!). One group watched the lecturer answer a series of
questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner. The second group
saw exactly the same person answer exactly the questions in a cold and
distant manner. Experimenters made sure it was obvious which of the
lecturers alter egos was more likable. In one he appeared to like
teaching and students and in the other he came across as a much more
authoritarian figure who didn't like teach at all.
group of students watched the videos they were asked to rate the
lecturer on physical appearance, mannerisms and even his accent
(mannerisms were kept the same across both videos). Consistent with the
halo effect, students who saw the 'warm' incarnation of the lecturer
rated him more attractive, his mannerisms more likable and even is
accent as more appealing. This was unsurprising as it backed up
previous work on the halo effect.
surprise is that students had no clue whatsoever why they gave one
lecturer (performance) higher ratings, even after they were given every
chance to see why.
the study, it was suggested to them that the fact of how much they
lecturer might have affected their evaluations. Despite of this direct
suggestion/implication, most said
that such favorable response had not
affected their evaluation of the individual characteristics of the
lecturer (performance they experienced).
who had seen the lecturer (performance) with a
cold and distant attitude reported
Some thought their ratings of his
individual (cold and distant) characteristics had actually affected
evaluation of his personalityl appeal. That is - these students felt
that it was "their fault" the way their graded the instructor's
Even after this, the
experimenters were not satisfied.
They interviewed students again to
ask them whether it was possible their global evaluation of the
lecturer had affected their ratings of the lecturer's attributes.
Still, the students told them it hadn't. They were convinced they had
made their judgment about the lecturer's physical appearance,
mannerisms and accent without considering how likable he was.
Common uses of the halo
The halo effect in itself is fascinating
and now well known in the
business world. According to Reputation
Marketing by John Marconi, books that have 'Harvard Classics'
written on the
front can demand twice the price of the exact same book without the
Harvard endorsement. The same is true in the fashion industry. The
addition of a well known fashion designer's name to a simple pair of
jeans can inflate their price tremendously.
But what this
experiment demonstrates is that although we can understand the halo
effect intellectually, we often have no idea when it is actually
happening. This is what makes it such a useful effect for marketers and
politicians. We quite naturally make the kinds of adjustments
demonstrated in this experiment without even realizing it. And then,
even when it's pointed out to us, we may well still deny it.
the next time you vote for a politician, consider buying a pair of
designer jeans or decide whether you like someone, ask yourself whether
the halo effect is operating.
Are you really evaluating the traits of
the person or product you think you are?
global aspect bleeding over into your specific judgment?
check could save you voting for the wrong person, wasting your money,
rejecting someone who would be a loyal friend of making a choice which
will have Eternal consequences.
R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The
halo effect: Evidence for
unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and
Psychology, 35(4), 250-6.
date: October 2007
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