What is the Halo Effect ?

Our tendency to assume someone (or something) has generally positive traits, based solely on a good first impression.

Why is it a problem?

The Halo Effect prevents us from making accurate judgments. We paint a rosy picture based on a tiny amount of information.

We are susceptible to manipulation by people who know how to use it. Our brains are pretty much hard-wired to fall down logical slippery slopes.

For example, Con-men and scam artists make liberal use of the Halo Effect. They show you credibility in one very visible area, then your brain takes that credibility and extends it to other areas they don’t deserve.

Imagine someone knocking on your door on a quiet Saturday — you are curious, suspicious, and your guard is up. But when you open the door, it’s someone who is dressed in an worker’s uniform that has the logo of a local telco— your guard goes down, and your likelihood of compliance goes up.

Nixon vs Kennedy in the first televised US presidential debate. Radio listeners thought Nixon won. TV watchers thought Kennedy won. Kennedy’s good looks and confident posture created a halo effect that people on the radio did not feel.

The Halo Effect in Everyday Life

The Perfect Suit. You are interviewing two candidates for a job in a bank, one after the other. You see them waiting in the lobby. One is wearing a wrinkled shirt. One is wearing a perfectly tailored suit. You immediately assume the one in the suit is more qualified and capable. Is that a fair judgment?

The Rich Friend. You have a friend who has a lot of money: you see in the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the photos on their Instagram. One day, you and the friend are talking about stocks, and they advise you to buy a certain stock. Based on their wealth, you assume your friend is also a capable stock-picker, so you buy the stock later that day. Was that a well-made decision?

Examples in Business and Marketing

The Ex-Googler.

“Wow, this person worked at Google, I bet they’re super smart and they would make a huge impact in my business. I have to hire them.”

The Unstoppable Stock.

“Wow, this stock is crushing it. It must be managed so well; they must have the perfect strategy; everyone who works there must be so smart.”

The Gorgeous Website.

“Wow, this resort has a gorgeous website. I can’t wait to book my stay there, I’m sure it’s going to be incredible.”

The Public Speaker.

“Wow, this person is an amazing public speaker. Every event I see them in, I’m blown away. I bet they would be an incredible manager, leader and CEO.”

How to deal with it

We fall victim to the Halo Effect when we don’t catch ourselves making assumptions.

We go from one observable fact (“this person works at Google”) to something plausible, but unproven (they are super smart) then eventually a conclusion that is founded on that plausible-but-unproven idea (they will make an impact in my business).

So we must learn to challenge our assumptions, and get into the habit of getting more information before making any conclusions:

  • “So you work for Telco X, and you want me to let you into my house? One sec, let me call the Telco to verify they sent you.”
  • “The pictures on this resort website look amazing, but I better check Tripadvisor reviews before I book.”
  • “My rich friend thinks I should buy this stock. Hmm, did my rich friend make his money in stocks? How do I know he’s good at picking stocks?”

Final thoughts

Thinking about the Halo Effect and its hypnotic power over us should lead you to the following conclusion:

Take advantage of it for yourself.

Knowing that people use first impressions to judge you, and fill in a lot of blanks about you, you can therefore pick a few skills and behaviors that will give you asymmetric leverage:

  • Get good at public speaking. People will automatically assume that you are smart, capable and confident.
  • Groom properly. Fairly or not, we correlate hygiene with aptitude.
  • Early in your career, get some brands on your resume. When you start your career, people don’t have anything to judge you on. Getting some known brands on your resume (well known schools or companies) can generate momentum for you and help you stand out.