The human brain is estimated to make approximately 35,000 conscious decisions every single day. Since the number is quite huge, in order to avoid being overwhelmed, the brain creates patterns – certain shortcuts that we follow while making decisions. This way, you do not spend hours on thinking whether to start walking with the right or the left foot, you just walk. However, when it comes to more complex decisions, such shortcuts can lead to malfunctioning and, as a result, errors in making decisions.One of such errors is the halo effect.
In psychology, the halo effect is described as a type of cognitive bias, in which our overall impression of a person influences how we perceive the other characteristics of that person. Usually, it works in such a way that during the first impression, a certain feature (positive or negative) is noticed, and since we tend to generalise, eventually, we either overestimate or underestimate other aspects of that person, based on the initial impression.
That is why, for example, we tend to perceive attractive people as also more intelligent, funnier, and overall more likable than less attractive people. In this particular case, we fall for the physical attractiveness stereotype, which of course can be faulty.
Now, as it has been said before that since our brain cares about us and wants to avoid being overwhelmed, it will keep the first impression, regardless of whether it was right or faulty, as a dominant perception of that person, overlooking therefore the analysis of further aspects – it simply reduces the amount of work and information that the brain must process. However, such subjective judgments can affect negatively your ability to think critically about a person or a situation.
The History of the Halo Effect
The term “halo effect” was first coined by the psychologist Edward Thorndike in his 1920 paper “The Constant Error in Psychology Ratings”. The paper included an experiment in which Thorndike observed the behavior of commanding officers in the military. The officers were simply asked to evaluate their soldiers based on such aspects as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, etc.
The goal of the experiment was to observe how the rating of one feature affected the assessment of other features of a person, in this case soldiers. Surprisingly, the results showed that there was a certain level of correlation between the positive assessment of one feature and the following positive rating of other features. On the other hand, in the cases where the first assessment was negative, more negative ratings commonly followed.
For instance, if a soldier was physically strong, there was a tendency to evaluate him as also a better leader, more reliable, and overall just better. This worked the same way for the opposite cases – when soldiers were weak and had no distinction in their physical appearance. This way, Thorndike found that physical appearance was one of the most vital influences in determining the overall impression of another person.
Thorndike’s work was also continued and developed by another psychologist, Solomon Asch, who theorized that the way we perceive other people is highly reliant on the first impression. All of this is due to the aforementioned tendency to generalize, for the sake of simplicity.
“Bio” Trap as a Part of Halo Effect
Due to the fact that we are continuously surrounded by people, we cannot avoid making judgments and creating certain opinions about one another. That is why the Halo effect can be present in such common spheres of our lives as education, the business world, daily interactions, etc. However, one of the main fields where the effect is being misused is in the advertising sphere and in marketing in general.
Similarly, in the reasoning process in person-to-person relationships, people form opinions and perceptions about products. Therefore, in the marketing field, the term can be related to as a consumer’s preference toward a product or a brand, based on a certain positive experience or a feature of the given product.
For instance, as nowadays “green” washing has become so popular, it is easy to get caught in the “bio” trap. It has been proven that people tend to overpay for products that are labeled as bio or organic, without even checking to see if they really are. The halo effect in such cases works along the following pattern: “bio” means 100% good and therefore worth the price.
Marketers, knowing about such behavior and take advantage of the Halo effect and use it as one of the manipulations that sell their products and services, or promote certain ideas. As an example, think about celebrity endorsement ads that feature happy families or influencers with their seemingly perfect lifestyles, etc.
Observing all of these features, we can arrive at the faulty opinion that a product/service/idea that is being promoted by such persons or by an attractive group of people must have higher quality or be more effective, healthier, more useful, and so on. In other words, we generalize and assign the features of the people to the products and, idolise them, as basically, the marketers want us to.
Halo Effect and Brand Strength
Another way the Halo effect is used in marketing is to relate a new product or an existing one to the previous positive experience of customers with a given brand or a company. If you have tried a product by Brand X once and were totally satisfied, the chances that you will make a decision to purchase the same or another product from Brand X is higher than the product of an unknown brand.
Similarly, if you have tried just one product by a Brand Y and it was unsatisfactory, the chances that you will buy anything from Brand Y are quite low, as you will associate each and every product of Brand Y with your negative experience. In other words, when one product positively or negatively becomes imprinted in the minds of consumers, the success of that product affects other products. The Halo effect in marketing is therefore closely related to brand strength, repetition, and loyalty, thanks to which businesses can gain market share and increase profits. That is why it is as important for companies as for people to keep their first impression positive and maintain it.
Due to the fact that the Halo effect is so highly integrated into our lives, it might be challenging to notice it, let alone to avoid it. However, thinking more objectively and building opinions based on facts rather than on gut feelings or simple emotions is a good start. Moreover, even though our brains try to simplify our everyday lives, as a general rule, it is in many cases better to slow down and look more deeply into things. Only then can you find the true essence of the matter and make the right decision.
Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney
Read another interesting article on the correlation between psychology and marketing “Unchangeable Prices or Another Illusion in the Marketing Field”.