Halo Effect: Why We Judge a Book by Its Cover

Halo effectEven though we may consider ourselves logical and rational, it appears we are easily biased by a single incident or individual characteristic (Nicolau et al., 2022).

The halo effect recognizes that scoring someone or something highly on one aspect influences our overall perception, positively or negatively. For example, if we perceive the café’s barista as attractive, we may not notice the cold coffee (Batres & Shiramizu, 2023).

The impact of the halo effect is important, potentially influencing the connections we form, consumer behavior, financial markets, and even the justice system.

This article explores the nature of the halo effect and how we can minimize its effects.

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The History of the Halo Effect Bias

Edward L. Thorndike first reported the halo effect in 1920 while studying commanding officers’ opinions of their soldiers.

As part of his research, he noted that when two officers rated individual soldiers positively on one attribute, they would typically do so for all other qualities, including “physical, intellectual, leadership, and personal skills” (Fabrizio, 2014, p. 378).

If an individual (or object) is rated highly on one attribute, they will likely score well overall. Yet, a poor score on one characteristic results in a lower rating generally (Nicolau et al., 2022).

The term “halo” was coined by Harvey (1938) when describing Thorndike’s research and refers to the religious concept of a glowing circle crowning the individual’s head. It highlights the cognitive bias of seeing that person in a positive light due to external qualities (Nicolau et al., 2022).

Defining the halo effect

Simply put, the halo effect is the “tendency of individuals to extrapolate their impressions of an attribute of an object to other attributes of that same object, or even to the overall impression” (Nicolau et al., 2022, p. 497).

The effect is one of several cognitive biases we experience. It relates to how we form an opinion of a person, object, or event based on assessing a single attribute (Nicolau et al., 2022).

As with the placebo effect, context and expectations are vital for the halo effect (Fabrizio, 2014).

“Whereas placebo effects have to do with the evaluation of symptoms, halo effects have to do with judgments of a person’s quality and personality” (Fabrizio, 2014, p. 377).

If we expect our pain to reduce, we can experience a very real analgesic effect. Equally, expecting positive or negative qualities in a person can mislead our judgments (Fabrizio, 2014).

Someone may assume that an attractive individual is also intelligent and witty or that a technologist skilled in analysis is good at communication and design. Such conclusions are often unfounded and can lead to poor decision-making and bias (Nicolau et al., 2022).

Deconstructing the halo effect of racism and stereotypes

The effects of the halo effect can be dramatic. In John Schimmel’s TEDx talk, we learn why it’s vital to understand the many biases we form.

3 Intriguing Studies on the Impact of the Halo Effect

Researchers have explored the halo effect in many different domains and cultures, with similar findings.

Cross-cultural halo effect

When researchers explored whether the halo effect was cross-cultural, they looked at perceived attractiveness in 45 countries across 11 words (Batres & Shiramizu, 2023).

“Male and female faces rated as more attractive were rated as more confident, emotionally stable, intelligent, responsible, sociable, and trustworthy” across all cultural backgrounds (Batres & Shiramizu, 2023, p. 25515).

It seems that the halo effect is universal. When we judge someone as more outgoing, engaging, and fun to be around, it may be more a statement of how we see that individual’s good looks.

Love at first sight

A third of people in the West report experiencing love at first sight (Zsok et al., 2017).

However, the phenomenon may not be entirely what it seems. Physical attraction is highly predictive of reporting this apparently immediate love hit, indicating that the halo effect may be involved (Zsok et al., 2017).

The research found that rather than being a distinct form of love, “love at first sight” is, in fact, an overspill of the initial, strong attraction, and it may even occur retrospectively (Zsok et al., 2017).


Researchers have identified the significant impact of the halo effect in tourism.

It seems hotel managers and their customers often recognize excellent performance in one aspect of the service on offer while overlooking others. On the other hand, a poor experience can damage the entire stay (Nicolau et al., 2022).

For example, staff at the check-in desk may offer excellent service yet receive poor online ratings due to poor housekeeping or a failing restaurant (Nicolau et al., 2022).

However, studies also suggest that having a loyal customer base can protect the hotel or holiday destination from adverse events. A poor service incident is less of an issue and has less spillover when the customer sees the brand as positive overall (Nicolau et al., 2022).

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Psychological Mechanisms Behind the Halo Effect

The halo effect “is a cognitive bias whereby people form an opinion based on a specific positive or negative attribute of a product, brand, or person, based on their predisposition towards another attribute” (Nicolau et al., 2022, p. 499).

Our predispositions shape the effect and result in oversimplifications and biased judgments (Nicolau et al., 2022).

What psychological mechanisms are involved?

Several essential psychological mechanisms are playing a part in the halo effect (Fabrizio, 2014; Nicolau et al., 2022):

  1. Context
    Psychosocial context impacts the degree of the halo effect. For example, our view of the overall workplace is influenced by individual aspects of the dynamics between employees, how they see each other, and their perceptions of teamwork, leadership, and career progression.
  2. Expectation
    If we expect positive qualities in a person, we are more likely to see them in a good light. For example, if we plan a first date with an individual we know to be attractive, we are more likely to experience them as engaging, humorous, and intelligent.
  3. Emotional state
    How we feel influences our experience of events, objects, and people. If we feel hopeful and grateful, we are more likely to see our coworkers as skilled, effective communicators who are excellent at their jobs.
  4. Attractiveness
    Our perception of how attractive someone or something is can direct our judgment. The handsome waiter will likely serve a better-tasting meal, and the beautiful lawyer may offer better advice.
  5. Extrapolation of impressions
    Having made a judgment on one aspect of a situation, we attribute it to others or the whole event (object or person). Such extrapolation is often not based on logic or reasoning but instead on insufficient or inaccurate information.
  6. Interconnectedness of attributes
    We see connections between attributes, even when they don’t exist. A good communicator may not be skilled at other aspects of their job. After making an independent assessment of an attribute, we form an evaluative bias about the whole.

How it influences decision-making

Like other cognitive biases, the halo effect offers a mental shortcut, speeding up decision-making. It reduces cognitive load by offering fast heuristics (rules of thumb). It relies on overall impressions rather than evaluating every attribute or quality of a person, object, or event (Nicolau et al., 2022).

However, while decisions may be more immediate, the halo effect can lead to unhelpful prejudices and blatantly false assumptions (Nicolau et al., 2022).

Seeing the Halo Effect in Life: 4 Examples

Halo effect in lifeThere are real-world effects to attributing socially desirable personality traits to physically attractive individuals.


Studies suggest that the halo effect can harm the legal system, potentially biasing judgments and influencing decisions (Batres & Shiramizu, 2023).

In mock trials, jurors were less likely to find attractive people guilty, and if they were, they were given lesser sentences (Batres & Shiramizu, 2023).


We also see the halo effect in the workplace, mainly when things go wrong.

While teams are typically credited for successes, they are less likely to be blamed for their failures (Naquin & Tynan, 2003).

Indeed, we are quick to blame individuals but not groups working together. Our judgment is influenced by a sole employee’s lack of knowledge or poor decision-making skills rather than team thinking (Naquin & Tynan, 2003).

“Team experience, and by extension, depth of knowledge about teams, appears to reduce” the tendency to attribute blame, even when justified (Naquin & Tynan, 2003, p. 338).


Teacher feedback is vital to student development, often providing the primary source of information on academic progress and achievement (Schmidt et al., 2023).

Yet such feedback is open to bias.

Halo effects are observed in teacher judgments, occurring “when the assessment of one aspect of a person’s achievement is generalized to another aspect of achievement for that same person” (Schmidt et al., 2023, p. 246).

As a result, the scores and comments teachers give their students may not accurately reflect their students’ abilities (Schmidt et al., 2023).

Digital marketing

The chatter experienced on social media significantly influences consumer behavior.

Research suggests that comments regarding individual aspects of a brand or product spill over to other characteristics (Borah & Tellis, 2016).

It turns out that recalling a product (for example, a car) because of a single defect negatively impacts how the entire brand is viewed, potentially impacting sales and stock market performance (Borah & Tellis, 2016).

“Online chatter amplifies the negative effect of recalls on downstream sales by about 4.5 times” (Borah & Tellis, 2016, p. 143).

The Reverse Halo Effect

As discussed, the halo effect has two sides. A positive view of one aspect of a person, object, or event can positively frame how we picture the whole. On the other hand, a negative judgment on a single characteristic can cast a negative light on who or what we experience (Borah & Tellis, 2016).

The reverse halo effect is the latter. If we take a marketing example, consumers may generalize negative experiences or attributes of a single product to other products within the same brand. Ultimately, the (often unfair) bias can lead to poor trust, reduced loyalty, and harm to a brand’s reputation (Borah & Tellis, 2016).

8 Ways to Counter the Halo Effect

Coaching LeaderThe halo effect can lead to unfair biases and poor decision-making.

The following approaches can help reduce its occurrence and impact and improve how we relate to one another, our work, and our environment (Marriage.com, 2024; Fabrizio, 2014; Nicolau et al., 2022):

  1. Increase awareness
    Focus on identifying your own biases and those of others. When are they happening, and what is their impact?
  2. Slow down
    While cognitive biases are helpful heuristics in an emergency, they are often problematic. Instead, pause and take a moment before making a decision or reacting to a situation.
  3. Be systematic
    The halo effect is usually irrational. Instead, find out the full picture before carefully considering your options, opinion, and the appropriate course of action.
  4. Seek diversity
    Narrow mindedness typically leads to poor decision-making. Seek input and advice from multiple, reliable sources, including a diverse set of friends and family members, particularly those who have offered sound advice in the past and offer views from varied backgrounds.
  5. Learn from the past
    Reflect on when the halo effect has previously appeared and led you down the wrong path. Think about what lessons can be learned and how you could act differently in the future.
  6. Embrace openness and embrace empathy
    Openness and empathy are skills we can improve. Practice looking beyond the surface and the most obvious characteristics. Remain open and dig a little deeper to understand a situation, person, or environment before closing your mind to other opinions.
  7. Challenge your assumptions
    Our first thoughts may not be our best ones. Note them down and weigh the pros and cons. What would be the outcome of following up on this way of thinking? How would it look a year from now?
  8. Practice mindfulness
    Grounding yourself in the present can help you make a more considered decision based on the facts rather than an emotional response. Try out some breathing exercises to slow down the response to each situation or communication.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available to help you reduce or remove bias from your or your client’s lives and make better, more informed decisions.

Our free resources include:

  • Decision-Making Worksheet for Adults
    Carefully made decisions can help us manage our biases better. Use this worksheet to consider the nature of the problem and identify an appropriate response.
  • Behavior Self-Evaluation
    It is vital to reflect on the decisions we make and whether or not they were helpful.
  • Good Choices/Bad Choices for Kids
    Teach your child to reflect on their friends’ poor decisions and how they react to social pressure and various situations.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • What does not need to change
    Sometimes, our bias can be very damaging. We must learn to focus on and attend to more of the good things in life.

Try out the following three steps:

    • Step one – Identify the good things that do not need to change in your life.
    • Step two – Write down why these aspects of your life should not change.
    • Step three – Identify how you can do more of what you enjoy.
  • Changing behavior through positive reinforcement
    Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to promote behavior change and replace unwanted behaviors with more desirable ones.

Try out the following steps:

    • Step one – Write down behaviors you would like to introduce into your life.
    • Step two – Choose a reward that would help you reinforce the behavior.
    • Step three – Let yourself savor the experience of each behavior and related reward.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others through CBT, check out this collection of 17 validated positive CBT tools for practitioners. Use them to help others overcome unhelpful thoughts and feelings and develop more positive behaviors.

A Take-Home Message

We spend too much time making irrational decisions. While not always impactful, such choices have the potential to damage our relationships and environment.

Cognitive biases (or heuristics) help us make decisions quickly, yet often at the cost of accuracy or rational, long-term strategy. The halo effect makes us judge the whole relationship, individual, or event when we only have part of the picture.

Positive or negative judgments made based on one characteristic spill over to others. For example, we assume that an attractive person is also socially adept, intellectual, and has many other desirable skills and talents.

Similarly, it happens in reverse. For example, if we have a bad experience with a company or product, we judge all their offerings as poor.

While the halo effect is deeply ingrained in how we respond to existing and new situations, we can develop the skills to limit or remove its impact.

Awareness, openness, and practice can help us make more considered and rational choices that ignore our past mistakes and are, therefore, helpful in therapy, the workplace, education, and our relationships.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.

  • Batres, C., & Shiramizu, V. (2023). Examining the “attractiveness halo effect” across cultures. Current Psychology, 42, 25515–25519.
  • Borah, A., & Tellis, G. J. (2016). Halo (spillover) effects in social media: Do product recalls of one brand hurt or help rival brands? Journal of Marketing Research, 53(2), 143–160.
  • Fabrizio, B. (2014). Placebo effects. Oxford University Press.
  • Harvey, S. M. (1938), A preliminary investigation of the interview. British Journal of Psychology: General Section, 28(3), 263–287.
  • Marriage.com. (2024, February 27). Halo effect in relationships: Examples, effect & how to minimize. https://www.marriage.com/advice/relationship/what-is-the-halo-effect/
  • Naquin, C. E., & Tynan, R. O. (2003). The team halo effect: Why teams are not blamed for their failures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 332–340.
  • Nicolau, J. L., Mellinas, J. P. & Martín, E. (2022). The halo effect. In D. Buhalis (Ed.), Encyclopedia of tourism management and marketing (pp. 496–499). Elgar.
  • Schmidt, F. T. C., Kaiser, A., & Retelsdorf, J. (2023). Halo effects in grading: An experimental approach. Educational Psychology, 43(2–3), 246–262.
  • Thorndike, E. L. (1920). A constant error in psychological ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(1), 25–29.
  • Zsok, F., Haucke, M., De Wit, C. Y., & Barelds, D. P. H. (2017). What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation. Personal Relationships, 24(4), 869–885.

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