Home > Cognitive Bias, Metacognition > That Perfect Person Isn’t Quite So Perfect: The Halo Effect

That Perfect Person Isn’t Quite So Perfect: The Halo Effect

Have you ever been frustrated by that one classmate or coworker who always seems to have the right answer? Whenever you’re in class or a meeting together they always seem to be excelling. Even though you have never hung out with them outside of the school or work environment you also think of them as social, outgoing, and a great family member. They occasionally wear shirts with running logos on them, so they must also go for runs on the weekend, and they’re probably faster than you. People who run are usually healthy eaters as well, so the chocolate bar you saw them eat yesterday afternoon must have been a special treat.

The Halo Effect can make people seem like devils or angels after one short interaction.

Does this description remind you of anyone? Even though you only know the person from one class at school, because they do well in that class you assume all these other positive characteristics about them. This tendency to generalize qualities from one specific instance to the person’s entire personality is called the Halo Effect. When a person does well in biology, other classmates assume that they must also do well in English and calculus. If a person is energetic and outgoing, they are also assumed to be intelligent and hardworking. This also applies to negative qualities, where if someone is rude to us in a meeting we assume they are lazy and untrustworthy.

The halo effect also causes us to trust those who have expertise in one area in areas irrelevant to their actual knowledge base. Essentially, once we know someone is an expert in one area we tend to generalize this expertise to other areas, leading to us trust other people in areas they are not quite as skilled. How many times have you seen reality TV shows where the person with the most respected job (maybe a doctor) is suddenly in charge of foraging for food when stranded on an island? It’s likely that there may be someone else in the group with more experience in the outdoors, but since doctors are well-respected we expect them to be knowledgeable in all fields.

This tendency to trust those with powerful jobs or expertise is due to our top-down processes, the cognitive processes that use our previous experiences to make judgments about the current situation. Since we have experience with people holding these powerful jobs making important decisions and being given a position that allows them to make important decisions for others, our previous experiences tell us to trust them in the current situation, even if the current problem is occurring in the woods instead of in the hospital. Top-down processing also includes our expectancies about the world, and we expect those that are in powerful jobs or that are attractive to be somehow better than we are, even if these expectancies are false. Essentially, your overall impression of a person affects your evaluation of the person, so if one characteristic (such a job performance or attractiveness) is positive, you will use this experience with their positive characteristic to generalize positivity to other traits about the person.

Our views of an unfamiliar person are also affected by this imaginary halo we put around a person. We tend to attribute many positive characteristics to someone who displays one positive characteristic during our interaction. People who display strong interpersonal skills or are very attractive are often rated as having a higher verbal fluency than those with fewer interpersonal skills, even though those two traits are not directly related (Shweder & D’Andrade, 1980). For example, when nurses were asked to appraise the performance of an unfamiliar nurse, they often rated the nurses who were productive in both job-relevant tasks and non-job relevant tasks as better than those who struggled with non-job-relevant tasks but performed well at job-relevant tasks. Essentially, if a nurse was good at both setting up an IV and had an organized planner then he or she was rated higher than a nurse who set up an IV well but was disorganized (Ostroff & Ilgen, 1992).

The Halo Effect is strongly relevant in workplaces, especially during interviews and first meetings.

The halo effect is also related to how familiar you are with another person. If you know someone well, then you are likely to know more about them, both the good and the bad. This prior acquaintance with the person should therefore result in more accurate ratings of them, which is true (Scotter, Moustafa, Burnett, & Michael, 2007). What is interesting, however, is that prior contact with someone you are rating leads to more positive ratings overall for that person (Scotter, Moustafa, Burnett, & Michael; 2007). It seems that simply having had previous interactions with the person can make a rater feel like they know the person better, and therefore they rate the person in a more positive manner. This may be the reason you think your friends and family can do no wrong, even when they make choices that are not the best.

So, are people aware of this effect? Can knowing about the effect make you less likely to think the best of others? The jury is still out on that one. Some researchers argue that people are completely unaware of their own higher cognitive processes, such as which study strategies work best or making social judgements (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). When shown a video of a teacher, the participants who were told the teacher was warm and welcoming rated her higher in all categories (including physical appearance and mannerisms) than the participants who were told the teacher was cold and unlikeable, even though both groups saw the same video (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). However, when other researchers attempted to replicate the study the found that while the overall ratings were higher for the participants who were told the teacher was likeable, the participants were aware that the explanation related to the teacher affected their ratings (Guerin & Ines, 1981). Additionally, most participants rated the teacher using the middle of the scale, so the differences between the likeable and unlikeable ratings were very small (Guerin & Ines, 1981). So, it’s still pretty unclear whether people are able to accurately judge others without falling prey to the halo effect.

So, what does all this mean for you? It means that next time you see that person that seems to have everything together, remember that just because they do great in biology class doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling in math class. Next time you need a leader in a group of people, don’t assume the loudest person or the one with the best-paying job is necessarily the best person for the job. And next time your friend gets in an argument, don’t immediately take their side without considering all the facts first.



Guerin, B. & Innes, J. (1981). Awareness of cognitive processes: Replications and revisions. Journal of General Psychology, 104, 173-189.

Ostroff, C. & Ilgen, D. (1992). Cognitive categories of raters and rating accuracy. Journal of Business and Psychology, 7, 3-26.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

Scotter, J., Moustafa, K., Burnett, J., & Michael, P. (2007). Influence of prior acquaintance with the ratee on rater accuracy and halo. Journal of Management Development, 26, 790-803.

Shweder, R., & D’Andrade, R. (1980). The systematic distortion hypothesis. In R. A. Shweder (Ed.), Fallible judgment in behavioral research Vol. . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.




  1. May 10th, 2018 at 17:23 | #1

    This is a really interesting post! I like how closely the halo effect is related to top down processing. Our prior knowledge and expectations as well as assumptions make a clear impact on how we perceive information so it would make sense that it makes up for a lot of the halo effect right? I also think it’s interesting that we rate people higher based on how well we know them. I wonder though if we meet someone and initially rate them badly, if the more we get to know them if that rating gets better over time or not? Who knows!

  2. May 18th, 2018 at 01:25 | #2

    I found this post to be extremely engaging! The halo effect is an interesting bias to further as it has very real implications for the world around us. I would like to believe that if people became aware of the fact that they hold the belief that a person who performs well at one thing performs well on all things is false it will result in a confidence boost. I suspect this because they will be able to look a person objectively for the skills that they do have and realize that though they excel at this one aspect or task they themselves excel at an another that, that person does not. This is just a thought.

You must be logged in to post a comment.