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The Halo Effect: Swiping Right For the Wrong Reasons

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Have you ever used the incredibly popular dating app called Tinder? The app presents users with pictures of singles in the area, prompting the user to make a snap decision to either swipe right “to approve” in hopes of matching with the individual or left “to decline”(more information about how tinder works is available here if you’re so inclined). Very little personal information, if any, is listed about the individuals, so most of the time judgments are made based off pictures alone. You could swipe through hundreds of different people in a short amount of time, because the information is so limited, and the basic principles behind the app are so simple and user friendly. If you’ve ever used Tinder, you might have swiped right on a person that you find to be incredibly attractive, because if they’re hot they must have other great personality traits right?

Tinder works so well because it makes use of the Halo effect. The Halo effect is the idea that people tend to believe that people who are physically attractive have other positive qualities such as intelligence, kindness, and honesty. The opposite is true for those who are viewed as unattractive in the eye of society. Unattractive people are likely to be perceived as unintelligent, unkind, and deceitful, due to the horns effect (Katz, 2003).  The two terms, halo and horns, play on the imagery of devils and angels to give a complete picture of how beauty can sway perceptions of personality.

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/ symmetry vs. asymmetry in the face

You might be asking yourself, this all seems to generally make sense, but how does the halo effect actually work? The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias, but if you’re not a cognitive psychologist you might not know what that means. Have no fear, we’re going to break it down a little bit. Cognitive biases, much like biases that you encounter in everyday life, are formed by past memories. In this case the past memories have shown you time and time again that attractive people have positive qualities. Hollywood and other forms of media have ingrained the idea that good people have beautiful faces. Think about most of the Disney movies from your childhood. It was easy to spot the villain and heroes just from how they looked. The good characters would be physically attractive, and the villains would be represented with dark colors and less appealing characteristics.  These messages have been shown to you repeatedly since childhood and taught us to associate beauty with benevolence. You specifically look for attractive features, such as facial symmetry (normally indicating good genes), and then group people into categories (e.g. attractive, unattractive) based on these judgments (more information about all of the features that make up facial beauty can be found here). Life however, is not always like the movies. When a person who is characteristically attractive is actually a good person this reinforces our beliefs, and only goes to strengthen the halo effect. It uses top-down processes, which use prior knowledge to allow you to process new stimuli, such as people’s faces, for meaning (McBride & Cutting, 2016). An example of top-down processing would be looking at a word and not having to go through and identify each letter before coming to the conclusion that it was a certain word, but instead relying on your prior knowledge and identifying the word as a whole item that you are familiar with. The same set of processing is used with facial attractiveness. The fact that top-down processes are used allows you to skip over the slower process of individually thinking about different characteristic of each person you encounter, and to skip to making a judgment based on your past experiences with people that you have placed in the same category as them (McBride, 2016). This process has become practically automatic and happens outside of your conscious awareness. You’re not thinking about judging individuals facial features and then using those judgments to place them in categories. This process happens quickly and without your effort or knowledge. You don’t think about what you’re doing while you’re swiping right and left on Tinder, in fact most of your decisions can be made in seconds. You’re employing all of your past knowledge by when you’re influenced by the halo effect.

The order in which judgments are made matters greatly. Moore, Filippou, and Perrett found that intelligence and attractiveness are really closely related in the face. They found that the facial features that people look at in order to determine perceived attractiveness and intelligence are fairly similar, and that due to these similarities people often lump them together.  Moore and colleagues found that people judged males who had high perceived levels  of intellect based on facial features to be highly attractive. One suggestion that could possibly explain part of this connection could be that people find intellect to be attractive. Humans tend to want to have long term partners that are intelligent and can pass of knowledge to their children. People tend to find those who are intelligent to be attractive. It makes sense that our brains would use top-down processing and assume that those who we find to be attractive are also intelligent, even if it is not always the case in the reverse.

www.dailymail.com.uk Beyoncé with a “halo” of sorts

Physical attractiveness is not always the most accurate indicator of other personality traits, and in fact it sometimes is incredibly misleading. Talamas, Mavor, and Perrett conducted research in which they examined how the halo effect can cause people to misjudge others’ levels of academic performance.  Although attractiveness and academic performance themselves were not directly linked, they were related through a third party: perceived conscientiousness. Perceived attractiveness is linked to high levels of perceived conscientiousness, which is shown to lead to greater academic performance. These relationships cause people to believe that those who are attractive are likely to have more academic success (read more about this study here). In the case of searching for employment, being beautiful can actually lead you to have advantages with getting a job over those who are equally or even better qualified than you. In the words of Beyoncé, the halo effect, might just be a “saving grace” at helping those who have lacking resumes still acquire jobs.

It’s kind of a scary thought that beautiful people might have certain advantages in life that aren’t necessarily earned. Worry not, the halo effect can be overcome! Lammers Davis, Davidson, and Hogue conducted a study in 2016 that brought to light some key information about the limitations of the halo effect. The researchers had men rate women on levels of attractiveness, and then assigned them to either read a positive, negative, or neutral description of the woman’s personality. The researchers found that positive descriptions of the women did not increase ratings of personality attributes. This may be due to the fact that when people are categorized as attractive they’ve already been assumed to be as good as possible, so it is impossible for their ratings to improve.  They also found that the negative descriptions actually reduced the attractiveness halo effect and caused men to believe that the women had fewer positive traits. This makes sense. Have you ever seen a really attractive person and automatically assume that they were amazing, but then you’ve gotten to know them better and your opinion quickly changed? It is in our nature to make quick decisions about people’s personalities based on their external appearances, but the halo effect isn’t almighty and people do tend to place value in information over their more shallow original impressions.  Although the halo effect is an automatic process, the bias can be overcome with the acquisition of new information. Controlled, or effortful processes are fairly hard to override. Once you have learned to make certain associations (attractive people having good qualities) they are very difficult to break. Overcoming ones initial desire to maintain the association requires inhibiting that response, which is an effortful task. It is only after you inhibit your preconceived connections between beauty and positive traits, that new information can be learned and a new conclusion can be reached, thus overcoming the halo effect.

The halo effect sneakily appears in your everyday life. We are always told to not judge a book by its cover, but it turns out that people can’t help but make broad judgments about your capabilities and overall personality based on your physical features-it’s automatic. However, knowing about the halo effect and how it works can help you understand certain things that happen in your life. It can help with making friends, understanding the job market, and navigating your dating life. The next time you’re swiping through tinder and find yourself continuously matching with the wrong kind of people- externally attractive but internally, not what you had hoped for, you should slow down and realize that the halo effect could be the reason behind your dating misfortune. Basing your dating decisions solely on external appearances by using apps like tinder could cause you to accidentally fall victim to the halo effect. Not to say that you can’t find love in the age of technological romance, but make sure that you’re not swiping right for the wrong reasons, and you’ll probably have better luck finding a lasting partner.



Katz, S. (2003). Physical appearance: The importance of being beautiful. In J. M. Henslin, J. M. Henslin (Eds.) , Down to earth sociology: Introductory readings, 12th ed (pp. 313-320). New York, NY, US: Free Press.

Lammers, W. J., Davis, S., Davidson, O., & Hogue, K. (2016). Impact of positive, negative, and no personality descriptors on the attractiveness halo effect. Psi Chi Journal Of Psychological Research21(1), 29-34.

McBride, D. M., & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive psychology: theory, process, and methodology. Thousand Oaks (Calif.): Sage.

Moore, F. R., Filippou., D., & Perrett, D. I. (2011). Intelligence and attractiveness in the  face: Beyond the attractiveness halo effect. Journal Of Evolutionary   Psychology9(3), 205-217. doi:10.1556/JEP.9.2011.3.2

Talamas, S. N., Mavor, K. I., & Perrett, D. I. (2016). Blinded by beauty: Attractiveness   bias and accurate perceptions of academic performance. Plos ONE11(2), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148284.


  1. April 29th, 2018 at 12:31 | #1

    This is a very interesting and relevant post because lots of college kids use Tinder. I am curious about your comment on the “…villains would be represented with dark colors and less appealing characteristics.” This reminds me of the race bias’s we discussed because in the weapon bias the participant is more likely to associate the gun with the black man and the tool with the white man even if the white man was actually carrying the gun. This is because of the top down processing that utilizes the past experiences and expectations to understand what you are currently looking at. I think that this bias is taking part too because majority of the villains are in fact darker shades and more often they have voices of black people, too. This strengthens the halo effect for white, attractive people and further ruins the people of color. I think it would have been a fascinating avenue to go into more detail about children’s perspectives on the halo effect.

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