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The Halo Effect: Learned Behavior?

OrganizedKhaos's picture

We have all been told that first impressions are important. How important would you say they are and at what point in life do they begin to matter? Would you believe it if someone told you that unattractive infants have significantly lower developmental skills? Although this may not be scientifically true, 64% of parents believe this (1). In fact, this kind of presumption does not stop with infant abilities but continues in the classroom, work area, and even when choosing politicians?

The halo effect is described as a cognitive tendency to place particular traits or expectations on someone based on perceptions of a former trait (2). Simply put this suggests that, what is beautiful is good (i.e. beautiful people are smarter). This tendency is a learned behavior that everyone experiences from the time they are children. In fairytales such as, Cinderella, those who are good are often presented as beautiful princesses and handsome princes, while the ‘evil doers' are often referred to as ‘ugly step sisters' or ‘beasts'. The attractive characters are often portrayed as honest and trustworthy, while unattractive ones are crooks and villains (5). Is there any scientific evidence behind this theory and if so do they lead to greater implications within society?

It is apparent that one's first impressions of another affect their successive interactions and that one's expectations influence another's behavior (4). But can a pupil's attractiveness also influence a teacher's judgment on that student's IQ, social status with peers, parental attitude toward school, and future educational accomplishments? Yes, studies show that teachers did perceive attractive children to have a greater potential for education than those who were unattractive (4). What does this mean? This suggests that not only were they expected to perform better based upon the way they looked, but because of this they were given more attention and favored by the teachers leading to a higher grade increase within a six month period. Thus, within society, the consequences of the halo effect can lead to an inequality in education.

Another place in society where the halo effect appears is within the work environment. Though this is tackled in human resource training it is said to be an unconscious judgment and even if we were told that our judgments are affected by the halo effect, we may still have no clue when it influences us (2). This is interesting because not only is one often guilty of prejudging but it does not seem to go through a part of brain where one can pin point its occurrence. So how unbiased are interviewers and recruiters? Some research shows that people who are determined to be attractive make about 5% more than people considered to be unattractive and are often promoted before their employee counterparts (7). According to these statistics it is clear that the more attractive you are the better chance in the job market. A similar trend is noted in dating, people select for a more attractive counterpart than themselves. Women tend to choose men who are taller, more attractive, and smarter than they are (same as men) (5). According to these trends attractive people are not only making more money but also highly selected for. It seems as though we are a society selectively breeding for beauty and brains (3).

Not only are we breeding for beauty but according to a study done in 2006 the halo effect transpires into election of candidates also. It was hypothesized and confirmed that the halo effect brought forth by physical attractiveness is more apparent than the halo effect obtained by vocal attractiveness (based on tone, diction, pitch, etc). Candidates deemed physically attractive were chosen as people who appeared to be better suited for office (8). Yes, there were those who were chosen on the basis of vocal attractiveness but in the end candidates with attractive physical were chosen more often than those with attractive vocals. Could this be a detriment to society's goals and values? If a majority their decisions for candidacy on a small portion of appearance it brings forth a problem with the values of our country. With a society that has a billion dollar industry emphasizing beauty (through fitness, fashion, et al.) this makes lots of sense. Studies will continue to show that attractive people are indirectly treated better because of this halo effect and the resulting interactions from those first impressions will be better also (4).

Throughout the research, the different studies that were done with infants, school aged student, and adults were of great interest. I realized that the way we treat attractive people is a learned behavior and that many of our choices are made without our knowledge. This cognitive tendency affects our lives in so many ways yet goes unnoticed almost every time. The idea that the halo effect, something so small, can affect major decisions as well as the way we interact with people in our lives leaves room for lots of issues.

For example, what studies may not be able to answer is whether there are deeper implications for race. Attractiveness cannot be mentioned without bringing up race because it is particular to culture. Within our society is tends to be associated with White (6). Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? And if so how does the halo affect work? If White is what is seen as beautiful in our society that would transpire to mean that the 5% getting paid more and getting promoted are whites and the students seen in the eye of the teachers as those "most likely to succeed" are also White. Based on the evidence put forth through the different experiments it can be said that the halo effect is less wrong and that people are treated differently because of their level of "attractiveness". Though beauty may be relative to one's own liking, within societal standards there lie implications and disparities because of race and this could be a next level to this experiment.



1. Jean Ritter, Rita Casey, and Judith Langlois. "Adults' Responses to Infants Varying in Appearance of Age and Attractiveness." Society for Research in Child Development 62(1991): 68-82.


3. Satoshi Kanazawa, Jody Kovar. "Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent." Intelligence. 32 (2004): 227-243.

4. Margaret Clifford, Elaine Walster. "The Effect of Physical Attractiveness on Teacher Expectations." Sociology of Education46 (Spring):248-258.

5. Elaine Walster, Vera Aronson, Darcy Abrahams. "Importance of Physical Attractiveness in Dating Behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 (1966): 508-516.


7. Kate Lorenz. "Do Pretty People Earn More?" (2005)

8. Ray Bull, Caroline Hawkes. "Judging Politicians by their Faces." Political Studies Association 30 (2006): 95-101




Mark's picture


Yes, I found this article very interesting. I am learning this in my psych class

Paul Grobstein's picture

beauty and choices

Yep, "many of our choices are made without our knowledge." And physical appearance ("beauty") does indeed seem to influence them. But what implies that this is a "learned behavior"? And, whether it is or not, what ought we to do about it?