Home > Categorization > Why Do We Trust Prince Hans? The Halo Effect.

Why Do We Trust Prince Hans? The Halo Effect.



Have you ever noticed how in Disney movies, the good guys are always attractive and the villains are… well, not? It seems like Disney tends to make the characters we like attractive, and the characters we dislike unattractive (or maybe it is the fact that they are attractive or unattractive that causes us to like or dislike them, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Take a look at Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Shan Yu from Mulan, or even Scar from The Lion King. What adjectives come to mind when you see these characters? Do you think of them as evil, immoral, or downright terrifying? It takes little effort to be repulsed by these characters, and perhaps it is their— shall we say unsightly? — physical appearance that prompts us to make quick judgements about them. Think of Frozen, for instance, which serves as an exception to the rule that the villain is always unattractive. Did any of you predict that Prince Hans was the villain? I definitely didn’t see it coming. Why was Anna—and why were we, the viewers—so trusting of Prince Hans? The answer may lie in the Halo Effect.

The Halo Effect is the idea that what is beautiful is good. In other words, if we find someone physically attractive, we make other positive judgements on their character, unconsciously perceiving them as intelligent, trustworthy, kind, responsible, and successful. We find interactions with attractive people more rewarding and we hold attractive people in a higher regard. Similarly, if we find someone to be physically unattractive, we unconsciously perceive them as less intelligent, less trustworthy, less kind, and the list goes on. This alternative is known as the Horn Effect.

Why is this important? The Halo Effect can have a lasting impact on success. For example, when attractive and unattractive schoolchildren exhibited the same bad behavior, the more beautiful children’s bad behavior was perceived by teachers as less severe than the identical behavior displayed by the less attractive children (Dion, 1972). This illustrates that we have a tendency to find attractive people less wrongdoing than unattractive people, even when behavior is held constant. This is particularly interesting because it has lasting implications: if more attractive children are favored by teachers, this can lead to more opportunities for learning and growth for attractive children. Dion’s study can be found here if you are interested in reading more. In addition, the Halo Effect acts similarly on the opposite end of the spectrum: attractive elders are perceived as being better-behaved and more cooperative than their less attractive cohorts, leading doctors in nursing homes to devote more attention to the attractive patients and potentially improving the quality of life of the attractive elders more than the less attractive ones (Katz, 1995). It’s fascinating that none of us escape the Halo Effect, young and old alike!

In addition, more attractive people are expected to have greater success in life, which is not an inconceivable idea considering Dion’s study on the significance of physical appearance in schoolchildren. When presented with photos of attractive, average, and less attractive people, participants were asked to make judgements on their personalities as well as to rate the likelihood that they would have certain life experiences that suggest personal success, such as getting married, having a prestigious job, or being a good parent (Dion, Berscheid, Walster, 1972). Overall, the participants predicted that the attractive people had more favorable personalities (meaning that they rated them higher on traits including friendliness, altruism, sincerity, warmth, and trustworthiness) and that they would enjoy greater life success and be happier in general. Interestingly, the one area in which attractive people scored lower than average people was in the category of parental competence. Apart from this exception, it is evident that attractive people are perceived as more likely to be successful in life. In fact, attractive people might not just be perceived as being more successful, but they might actually be more successful, as attractive people can earn up to three to four percent more than their less attractive colleagues at work (Hamermesh, 2013). Again, what is beautiful is good (Dion, Berscheid, Walster, 1972). If you are interested in reading more about this study, which provides a great foundation on the Halo Effect, you can do so here.


        Why do we find certain faces more attractive in the first place? Originally, it was suggested that we find symmetrical faces more attractive because they are easier for us to recognize. This would follow the idea that we process faces both analytically and holistically, meaning that we look both at individual facial features as well the overall configuration of the face when we process facial stimuli. Perhaps a symmetrical face would allow for easier holistic processing, or processing of the whole face, leading us to find symmetrical faces more attractive. However, this idea was disproven and has been replaced with the idea that symmetrical faces are perceived as more attractive because they are indicative of good genes and good health, not because they are easier for facial recognition (Jones et al., 2001). When photos of normal (asymmetrical) faces were digitally edited to be more symmetrical, the symmetrical faces were deemed more healthy-looking and therefore more attractive than the asymmetrical faces. I recommend reading more about this fascinating study here.

The reason that we believe in the benevolence of attractive people may lie in cognitive categorization. In the prototype model, which is one theory that attempts to explain how we categorize information, it is suggested that we have an abstract mental representation of a category, meaning that when we think of a category, we think about all of the typical characteristics that a member of that category contains, and more frequently occurring characteristics are given more weight. This essentially provides us with a mental shortcut that is based on our experience in the world. Perhaps, then, when we think of our prototype of successful people, one heavily-weighted characteristic that many successful people have is attractiveness—think of singers, politicians, and actors, for instance. Indeed, being well-dressed and being well-groomed were found to be more prototypical characteristics of leaders than of non-leaders (Lord, Foti, de Vader, 1984). (You can read more about this study here.) So, when we see someone attractive and unconsciously perceive them as intelligent, successful, or trustworthy, it might be because attractiveness is a prototypical characteristic of intelligent, successful, and trustworthy people because that is what we have been exposed to in our world.



So perhaps it was Prince Hans’ dazzlingly symmetrical, healthy-looking face that caused us to find him attractive, and perhaps it was the fault of our prototypical categorization that caused Anna and us to trust him. I think of us as living in a society that tries to set physical appearance aside and focus on inner beauty and personality, but in reality we are all under the influence of the Halo Effect. All we can do is remember to be mindful about making snap judgements about others based on appearance. (And be careful about getting engaged to someone on the same day that you meet them.)



Daniel, H. S. (2013). Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dion, K. 1972. Physical Attractiveness and Evaluation of Children’s Transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24:207-213.

Dion, K., Berscheid, E., Walster, E. 1972. What is Beautiful is Good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24:285-290.

Jones, B.C., Little, A.C., Penton-Voak, I.S., Tiddeman, B.P., Burt, D.M., Perrett, D.I. 2001. Facial symmetry and judgements of apparent health Support for a “good genes” explanation of the attractiveness-symmetry relationship. Evolution and Human Behavior 22:417-429.

Katz, S. (1995). The Importance of Being Beautiful. Down to earth sociology, 8, 301-307.

Lord, R. G., Foti, R.J., de Vader, C.L. 1984. A Test of Leadership Categorization Theory: Internal Structure, Information Processing, and Leadership Perceptions. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 34:343-378.

  1. May 5th, 2017 at 14:49 | #1

    Julia, this is such a fascinating post! I found it incredibly interesting that the halo effect can even go as far as to effect the care that patients receive in hospitals. It’s truly an overarching bias. I also looked into the halo effect and I loved the way that you looked at explaining the halo effect from a cognitive standpoint. Another point to consider would be that it could be impacted by pattern recognition of facial features. Movies and the media have conditioned us to believe that those who have certain attractive physical features are likely to have other personality traits that are seen as positive. In our everyday lives, we could apply these learned associations, to make judgements about people based on their physical appearance. The halo effect is such an interesting bias. It’s mind-boggling that our initial judgements of people can be so wrong!

  2. Julia Parson
    April 29th, 2017 at 09:19 | #2

    @skbarr20 Thanks! Yes, it’s so important for healthcare professionals to keep the halo effect in mind to ensure as equal care for everyone as possible. If you’re interested in a slightly different take on the halo effect that is still related to healthcare, you can look at this study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743508000042
    Here’s the Sparknotes version: hospitals which were decorated with plants were perceived by patients as being more attractive, and therefore were also perceived as being more stress-reducing and more pleasant. The attractiveness of the hospital has a halo effect that can actually impact the healing process for patients, as a lower-stress environment is more conducive to making patients better. So, if you’re interested in healthcare, the halo effect plays a role both socially and in terms of interior design. I wonder if this halo effect would also extend to facilities for mental health, or even for somewhere like schools…

  3. skbarr20
    April 27th, 2017 at 16:39 | #3

    Fantastic post! I had no idea of the public health implications of this bias. I’m an EMT, and I am so glad that I’m now aware of the Halo Effect because this knowledge will allow me to make sure I give equally quality care to all of my patients (knowledge is power, right?). It’s also fascinating to consider wages – just as we have a gender pay gap and a racial pay gap, I suppose we also have an attractiveness pay gap. I found a very interesting article that discusses how this effect also applies to web design. If users are satisfied with even a single aspect of a site, they think of it more favorably (Nielsen & Cardello, 2013). Who knew that our face recognition system could lead us so astray?

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