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Are Celebrities Really THAT Perfect? How the Halo Effect Impacts the Way We View and Treat Others

Have you ever seen a celebrity that you loved and idolized do something wrong? For example, a few years ago the actress Reese Witherspoon’s husband got a DUI while she was driving with him. Reese was quite rude to the police that pulled them over, which caused her to also get arrested for disorderly conduct. She asked the police if they knew who she was, and then when they responded no she warned that they were “about to find out”. She also ignored instructions from the police officer to stay in the car, and resisted arrest.

Chances are, if you were a fan of the actress like I am, you were pretty shocked to hear this story. Despite never having met Reese Witherspoon personally, you assumed she was a kind, respectful person who would never do or say these kinds of things. You may have even been shocked by Reese’s appearance in her mugshot, where she appears disheveled and not like her usual, made-up and presentable self. Why are we so shocked by this, when Reese Witherspoon is literally a stranger to us??

Reese Witherspoon as we “normally” picture her

Reese Witherspoon’s mug shot following her husband’s DUI

Idolizing celebrities and assuming that they would do no wrong is an example of a phenomenon referred to as the “halo effect”. The halo effect is a general cognitive bias in forming impressions, where the tendency for impressions of someone or something in one area influences one’s opinions or feelings in other areas. These impressions can be positive, where one likable trait such as attractiveness is used to make an overall positive judgment on a person. This has been demonstrated in several studies where participants assume that physically attractive people possess more socially desirable personality traits, and expect them to lead better lives (Dion et al., 1972). However, the impressions can also be negative, when one unfavorable or disliked trait of a person or product—such as unattractiveness– influences our overall opinion of them in a negative direction.

In the example of a celebrity like Reese Witherspoon, one aspect of the person (i.e., their looks, talent or charisma on screen) can make us assume that they are an all-around “good person”.  We may think that because Reese is a talented actress (have you seen her in Big Little Lies??), she must also be pleasant, trustworthy and intelligent. And she very well might be– but she is also capable of making big mistakes. We often view famous people in this perfect light due to heuristics, or mental “shortcuts” that allow people to make snap judgments and solve problems super quickly and efficiently. People tend to use these heuristics as a type of “cognitive laziness”, because they reduce the mental effort required to make decisions or evaluate qualities separately.

In the case of the halo effect, we form these simple or even superficial heuristics about people’s personalities based on one positive or negative trait. For example, we might think a cute guy who lives down the hall from us is also probably funny, nice, and smart, despite not actually knowing what he’s really like at all. This is because we use our top-down processes, or processes that use our previous knowledge and experience about the world, to make snap judgements about the current situation and conflate positive traits in our minds. Our accumulated past experience and knowledge leads certain attributes or traits to be more strongly associated with each other in our memory. This is due to the organization of our semantic networks, or the networks of relationships between related concepts and their associated features in our memories.

When looking at the connection between good and beauty, research has shown that the way our semantic networks are organized supports the idea that we have connections between the two traits in our general knowledge about the world (Demuth, 2017). This can be seen in many movies, where the heroes are portrayed as beautiful while the villains are ugly. A possible explanation for this connection is that both “good’ and “beauty” are important signals of success and survival efficiency. They are both positive, lasting personal values that increase the quality and likelihood of our survival and success in life (Demuth, 2017). In other words, it is normally easier for us to find love, have children, and be successful if we are both good and beautiful, so we tend to associate the two traits, even though they do not always actually go hand in hand. This idea also helps explain why the halo effect seems to emerge in early childhood, as there is a natural survival instinct involved in the process of associating positive traits like good and beauty in our minds (Forghas & Laham, 2016).

You are now probably wondering how these connections in our semantic networks that tie concepts like “good” and “beauty” together work. The presentation and activation of one attribute, like the cuteness of the guy down the hall or the talent of a celebrity, automatically and selectively primes access to other, previously associated attributes through spreading activation. Spreading activation is when we search associative networks in our brain, and retrieve specific information related to the first concept from these networks. For example, when we think of a concept like “talented”, it activates related concepts in our brain, like “intelligent” and “kind”, through a kind of mental flow, which makes it easier to retrieve and identify these related concepts.

The halo effect can also work in reverse– if you dislike one aspect of something, such as finding someone unattractive, you are likely to have a negative predisposition toward everything about that person. One example of this is the way in which less attractive people are often given more severe punishments in court by a jury. Just like any other social sector, a jury often relies on their own notions and preconceptions about the world to make their decisions. A study by Castellow et al. found that when defendants in a sexual assault case were attractive, they were found guilty 56% of the time, and when they were unattractive they were found guilty 76% of the time. Yikes! Clearly, the halo effect can have a significant impact on the way court cases are decided.

This can lead to some important and serious real-world effects, as they potentially can cause discriminatory treatment and create unwarranted negative expectations about a person. For example, Dr. Eberhardt has done work on how race effects legal decisions, showing how criminals that are more stereotypically Black receive harsher sentences–including more likelihood of receiving the death penalty– than those with more euro-centric features (like lighter skin). Obviously, people’s skin color or appearance in general has nothing to do with how likely they are to commit a crime, so this result is a very concerning byproduct of the halo effect and of stereotyping in general.


This image from Dr. Eberhardt’s study depicts race discrimination in the death penalty– the man with darker skin received the death penalty, while the man with lighter skin did not for the same crime.

So, are celebrities like Reese Witherspoon really that perfect? Quick answer: NO. We use the halo effect almost daily in our lives to make positive or negative assumptions about people that are often untrue. The halo effect clearly manifests itself in myriad of situations, and can cloud our judgement of people’s true character. It is important to remember that no one is perfect– even if they look perfect– and that everyone makes mistakes. Knowing about the halo effect and its consequences can help us combat this bias, and remember to look at the whole picture instead of just one good or bad trait when evaluating others!



Berman, Foehl, & Trower (2018). B.E. for dogs: Halo effect [cartoon]. Retrieved November 20, 2020 from https://ecotalker.wordpress.com/2020/11/08/the-halo-effect/

Castellow, W.A., Wuensch, K.L., & Moore, C.H. (1990). Effects of physical attractiveness of the plaintiff (victim) and defendant in sexual harassment judgement. Journal of Social Personality and Behaviour 5, 547-62.

Démuth, Andrej (2017). The Relation between Beauty and Goodness-Historical and Cognitive-Scientific Approach. Trnava University 

Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033731

Duke, A. (2013). Reese Witherspoon arrested, husband booked on DUI [Photograph]. Retrieved November 18, 2020 from https://cnn.com/2013/04/21/showbiz/reese-witherspoon-arrested/index.html

Eberhardt, J. L. (2019). Two defendants from a Philadelphia death-eligible database assembled by criminologist David Baldus and colleagues [Photograph]. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://enewspaper.latimes.com/infinity/article_share.aspx?guid=881e4195-aa9a-43a3-8c68-ba70b284c895

Eberhardt, J. L., Davies, P. G., Purdie-Vaughns, V. J., & Johnson, S. L. (2006). Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science17(5), 383–386. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01716.x

Forgas, J. P., & Laham, S. M. (2016). Chapter 15- Halo Effects. Cognitive illusions: Intriguing phenomena in judgement, thinking and memory (pp. 276-290). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Merritt, J. (2014). Reese Witherspoon [Photograph]. Retrieved November 18, 2020 from https://imdb.com/name/nm0000702/


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