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Unconscious Bias: The Halo Effect

by John Neil
16 November 2016
JohnNeil.jpgThe halo effect occurs when a person's positive qualities, physical appearance and general attractiveness affects how we judge their character. The better they look and behave, the better a person we judge them to be.
It was first described by psychologist Edward Thorndike in a 1920 study examining how military commanders rated their subordinates. When physical qualities were rated highly, other qualities – such as leadership and organisational skills – tended to also be rated highly. Thorndike called this a “halo error”, referring to the way positive or negative impressions coloured how a person was viewed, blurring specific individual qualities.
More recent studies have confirmed the existence of the halo effect. Evidence shows that judges will tend to hand down lesser sentences to attractive individuals than unattractive individuals, even when exactly the same crime is committed. Other studies found attractive teachers are rated as friendlier, better organised and more likely to encourage interaction with students. It is also a mainstay of advertising. Celebrities lend their ‘halo’ to products that have little or no relationship to the qualities their fame is founded on.
Attractiveness has also been shown to influence decision making in the process of interviewing and hiring candidates, which suggests the halo effect can lead to unfair or unjust recruitment decisions.

READ MORE: Unconscious bias: We're blind to our own prejudices
Promotions can also be decided by the halo effect. For instance, if sociability is overvalued by management, someone who regularly attends post-work drinks might be seen more favourably than someone still in the office working or at home with their family. This might lead to ‘the life of the party’ – who may still be good at their job – favoured unfairly over an equally or more qualified candidate.
Similar business trends can be observed on a wider scale. When major companies like Adobe and eBay set up headquarters in Utah, smaller start-ups benefitted: suddenly high calibre employees saw Utah as a legitimate place to work and conduct business. Nothing had changed except the state was now associated with large, successful companies. Either organisations had been overlooking Utah’s merits as a home of business or people are now overlooking the downsides of working in Utah because of the presence of large corporations – neither of which suggests a particularly rational decision making process.
The halo effect can have positive effects but it is a dangerous influence on our decision making because it operates at a profoundly unconscious level. Next time you are making a significant decision such as hiring someone, ask yourself if the halo effect could be at work. Does the candidate appeal to you because they are likeable rather than qualified? What traits and attributes are you really evaluating in your specific judgement?
John Neil is the joint head of Advice & Education at The Ethics Centre.

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