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Over Easy: The “Halo Effect” and it’s opposite.

John Edwards

This time of year I am remembering how Christmas was or rather how I thought Christmas was when I was young.  Particularly the music. While I preferred popular music IE Top 40 and R&R, my parents would have Easy Listening on the radio. Especially when we were in the car on our way to visit my cousins and aunt and uncle in the city, Cleveland. Not just Christmas music but also Seasonal music. Like Winter Wonderland and Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow and Sleigh Ride. Maybe a few actual Christmas Carols mixed in.  We don’t seem to have much music like that these days.

But then maybe my mind is selectively editing the memories of Christmas Past. Embellishment of past memoires is common as one gets older. Forgetting the bad stuff and exaggerating the good stuff.

Which brings us to the topic today. The “Halo Effect“.

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties. It was named by psychologist Edward Thorndike in reference to a person being perceived as having a halo. Subsequent researchers have studied it in relation to attractiveness and its bearing on the judicial and educational systems. The halo effect is a specific type of confirmation bias, wherein positive feelings in one area cause ambiguous or neutral traits to be viewed positively. Edward Thorndike originally coined the term referring only to people; however, its use has been greatly expanded especially in the area of brand marketing.

Which is also the subject of David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart podcast.  He begins with an essay of how we are living a life of mostly uncertainties leads us to confident solutions and decisions where the information is lacking at best to make any kind of a decision.


In psychology, uncertainty was made famous by the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In their 1982 collection of research, “Judgments under Uncertainty,” the psychologists explained that when you don’t have enough information to make a clear judgment, or when you are making a decision concerning something too complex to fully grasp, instead of backing off and admitting your ignorance, you tend to instead push forward with confidence. The stasis of uncertainty never slows you down because human brains come equipped with anti-uncertainty mechanisms called heuristics.

Unfortunately this can also lead us far astray.

A heuristic can lead to a bias, and your biases, though often correct and harmless, can be dangerous when in error, resulting in a wide variety of bad outcomes from foggy morning car crashes to unconscious prejudices in job interviews.

This Halo Effect bias – from uncertainty and heuristics – leads us to judge that a good looking or confident individual is also smart, wise, intelligent, creative … You get the picture.  And it also biases the way we treat people and things as well.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of all of this is how it renders invisible the uncertainty that leads to the application of the heuristic. You don’t say to yourself, “Hmm, I’m not quite sure whether I am right or wrong, so let’s go with lawyer.” or, “Hmm, I don’t know how far away that car is, so let’s wait a second to hit the brake.” You just react, decide, judge, choose, etc. and move on, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, unaware – unconsciously crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.

These processes lead to a wonderful panoply of psychological phenomena. In this episode of the podcast we explore the halo effect, one of the ways this masking of uncertainty can really get you in trouble. When faced with a set of complex information, you tend to turn the volume down on the things that are difficult to quantify and evaluate and instead focus on the few things (sometimes the one thing) that is most tangible and concrete. You then use the way you feel about what is more-salient to determine how you feel about the things that are less-salient, even if the other traits are unrelated.

This Halo Effect is at the core of our politics. I would not hesitate to say that nearly everyone who has been elected to office has was elected because of the Halo Effect, rather than any hard evidence to make him or her qualified to be elected.  The only data I had on Bill Clinton was that he could play a mean sax. I would also say that nearly all politicians are advised to give out as little real solid information about themselves or the history as possible.

This happens with product advertising as well. Products that are described in vague and nebulas terms that tell you exactly nothing about them or how well they performed the task they are intended to do.

Of course the opposite is also true. like the saying says. “One ah shit wipes out a whole life time of att a boys”. One negative trait can bias the evaluation to negative on everything else. How many ugly or badly dressed people have ever been elected or advanced in their position. How many products that have a single but well advertised flaw have been sold unless they shine brightly in some other way.

Which is another aspect. We tend to give those with the Halo a pass when we should not. The old “He/She can do no wrong.” or Teachers Pet etc. And condemn those who appear to have horns even though in every other respect they are OK.

Which is why we have organization to objectively or at least less subjectively evaluate thing and places etc. for us. And the media is supposed to do the same with people. Like the Consumers Union and some product specific magazines. Anyone remember Julian Hirsch and Hirsch-Houck Laboratories reports in Hi-Fi/Stereo Review ?

So it would appear that we as human beings can and often are far to biased and easily so to make any decent judgement on anything.

Happy almost Christmas or Festivus or Hanukkah.


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