Picture this: at work, you’re known for giving impressive presentations. Public speaking and clear communication are among your strongest soft skills. You’re engaging, persuasive, and able to design PowerPoints that hold everyone’s attention from start to finish.
Your coworkers and managers tend to think positively of you because of these strengths. And when you’re assigned a new project, everyone automatically assumes you’ll excel — even though it falls outside your wheelhouse.
This is the “halo effect” at work.
The halo effect is a common psychological phenomenon in which people form a positive overall impression of someone based on a single characteristic or ability. At work, it can influence decision-making processes, company culture, and customers’ perception of your brand.
Learn how to recognize and use the halo effect to build a stronger team and business — and avoid the pitfalls of cognitive bias.
What’s the halo effect?
The halo effect was first introduced by American psychologist Edward Thorndike in a 1920 report titled “A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings.”
Thorndike examined data from surveys where participants were asked to score the individual characteristics of subordinates, such as intelligence, dependability, and physical appearance. The subjects were required to judge a single person on specific traits, such as intelligence, physical appearance, or character.
He found that high scores in one quality strongly correlated with high scores across other qualities — despite directing subjects to judge each characteristic independently. Similarly, low scores in one area translated to lower ratings across the board.
Thorndike concluded that humans struggle to analyze the different aspects of a person’s nature separately. Instead, people tend to judge others as outstanding or inferior based on a single aspect of a person, which influences their perception of other traits.
Why the halo effect happens
Your brain is constantly processing information and stimuli, and decisions abound. To save time when choices are time-sensitive and high-pressure, the mind is wired to create shortcuts called heuristics.
Your mind depends on different types of heuristics to draw quick conclusions in complex situations. Because brain power is limited, reducing mental effort with common biases helps you avoid mental fatigue and save energy for other important tasks.
Lots of the time, your brain does a good job drawing conclusions. The fight-or-flight response might kick in if you run behind on a project: your mind predicts the negative consequences, and the fear of holding up your team members’ workflow prompts you into action. You’re unaware of most of the mental gymnastics that went into building this conclusion, but it’s stimulating motivation and prompting the decision to buckle down on work, which benefits you.
In simple terms, your mind forms a halo effect bias because it’s a more efficient way of processing information. It’s easier to form an overall impression of a person based on a single characteristic than to analyze their character as the sum of several positive and negative traits. But this type of thinking doesn’t always have a positive outcome.
When you don’t challenge cognitive bias, you may misjudge people and lose out on important connections. And if you’re a business leader, you could struggle to build strong teams because you don’t put in the extra effort to fairly evaluate each member’s true potential.
Common biases guide your thinking, but they don’t have to dictate it. Challenging this mental habit by stepping back and looking at a person’s whole self is a learnable skill — and one that will benefit you at work.
4 examples of the halo effect at work
Thorndike’s theory has been widely accepted in social psychology, and subsequent halo effect experiments have explored the ways this cognitive bias is stimulated. Let’s dig into some halo effect examples so you can detect this phenomenon in professional relationships and interactions:
If a coworker or colleague possesses exemplary skills in one particular area, like organization or technical expertise, you may assume they’re high-performing in other, unrelated areas. Overestimating their abilities can cloud your judgment so much that you overlook potential shortcomings. In a team setting, passing over more competent or experienced workers can create jealousy or resentment, damaging employee retention and ultimately derailing projects.
The attractiveness halo effect is when you attribute positive qualities to a physically attractive individual. We tend to judge people who fit societal beauty standards more positively despite knowing little about their character. You may unintentionally associate conventional-looking people with other positive qualities, such as intelligence, charisma, and leadership. Falling victim to this bias can cause you to rely too much on one team member or overlook a better-suited coworker for an important task.
Emphasizing positive traits
Positive impressions go a long way. If you perceive a coworker as having positive personality traits, like being friendly, funny, and likable, it can influence your perceptions of their professional abilities. You may assume their positive disposition drives higher job performance — but making professional judgments based on personal characteristics is rarely accurate.
Making a snap judgment about someone with high status or a prominent reputation in the workplace can spur a snowball effect. Their previous accomplishments, socioeconomic background, or position of power may inspire you to attribute positive traits to them with little justification, resulting in more opportunities and greater status.
Imagine someone who graduated from a prestigious university. You may assume they’re highly intelligent or possess a strong work ethic, even without direct evidence. This could lead to preferential treatment, sway, or access to opportunities over others with more valuable skills or know-how.
The halo effect in marketing
The halo effect doesn’t only impact how we interact in relationships — it shapes the way consumers perceive businesses and brands. If you positively identify with a specific product or brand trait, you’re more likely to see the entire business in a positive light.
Consumers may assume a business that sells sustainable products is a steward of high morals without questioning other aspects of the business, like inclusivity, ethics, and employee welfare. Even if you learn seedy details about the brand — like a toxic leadership problem — you may be inclined to give the business the benefit of the doubt based on its previous reputation.
Even a strong company can benefit from this bias. Here are some ways you can use the halo effect to positively impact a business or personal brand:
Brand endorsements: Working with well-liked influencers or other brands with positive public images can rub off onto your business and spawn a sense of trust or status that boosts engagement with your brand. Freelancers with a social media presence may want to strategically align themselves with businesses and brands that have positive public images and strong customer bases.
Reputation: If you produce a high-quality product, your customers are likely to assume that other products you launch will be of the same caliber. Whether you’re a startup or an established business, focusing on quality and consistency can help you expand into new markets and bring your existing customers with you.
What’s the reverse halo effect?
The reverse halo effect, also known as the horn effect or devil effect, happens when a single negative judgment influences other dissimilar characteristics. For example, if you tend to arrive at work late because of a difficult commute, your coworkers may assume you’re lazy, disengaged, or inefficient.
At work, the horn effect can show up in several other ways, such as:
Allowing someone’s appearance to negatively influence your perception of their competence, professionalism, or leadership potential
Judging a person’s personality based on a single bad decision or professional weakness
Negatively judging a person’s abilities, work ethic, or intelligence based on their socioeconomic background
Making negative assumptions about someone’s experience, capabilities, or potential based on their age
Using gender stereotypes to inform someone’s unique value proposition
Questioning someone’s performance or reliability because of a disability or health condition
When you use a single trait, stereotype, or innate personal quality to judge a person’s character and potential, you pigeonhole them. These negative impressions create uncomfortable and toxic work environments that negatively impact productivity and innovation — and lead to employees feeling unsafe and discriminated against.
How to avoid the halo effect in the workplace
Promoting a culture of fairness fosters a more inclusive work environment. Instead of remaining entrenched in biases, celebrate everyone’s strengths and reward growth. The result? Improved employee satisfaction and a more diverse and connected workforce.
Here are some ways to avoid the negative impacts halo effect at your company:
Practice communication: Use open communication to challenge biases. Your openness may inspire others to share their experiences and opinions.
Seek it out: Show up and support diversity and inclusion initiatives that promote equal opportunities for all employees.
Work toward self-awareness: Develop your self-awareness and psychological flexibility by making a conscious effort to sit with your cognitive biases and question your snap judgments in order to grow from them.
First impressions aren’t everything: Be aware that your first impression may not capture the full potential of a person’s abilities or the breadth of their character.
Be kind: Practice empathy and remember that everyone makes errors and has flaws. Give others the same benefit of the doubt you extend yourself.
Stay positive: Do your part to nurture supportive and resilient teams. A trusting environment encourages psychological safety where people are comfortable acknowledging each other’s unique value and working openly on their weaknesses.
Halos and horns
You’re the sum of your parts — both the phenomenal and the flawed. Together, they make you unique. Your coworkers, colleagues, and team members are all the same. And seeing them as whole people fosters closer teams that are more capable of overcoming challenges.
The halo effect isn’t always easy to detect. After all, your brain is hardwired to make snap judgments. Building self-awareness and seeing people how you see yourself is the first step toward creating powerful professional relationships that add real value to your career and business.