Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

You Are Bad At Assessing People (But So Is Everybody Else)

We like to think we are objective, rational people when it comes time to hire a new employee, evaluate an existing member of your team, or form a new partnership. We are confident we can assess people based on their merits. But in reality, we easily succumb to a well-documented and much-researched cognitive bias known as “the halo effect.”

In 1920, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike published a study showing that employees, soldiers, teachers, and aviators all seemed oddly similar across a variety of seemingly unrelated attributes on performance reviews. For example, highly reliable workers were also rated as being highly intelligent. Unkempt soldiers were rated as being physically weak. Enthusiastic teachers were also prompt, and prompt teachers showed integrity.

Thorndike was skeptical, especially of the ratings of pilots who were routinely evaluated very highly in just about every category. The pilots were thus recommended for leadership roles despite being young and lacking in the sort of training a military leadership position requires. Thorndike realized that flying aces were great at doing something that was impressive, and it provided them with something he called a “halo of general merit.” The halo influenced commanders’ assessments and raised the ratings of all their other traits, including those that got them jobs they were not qualified to hold. He called it the halo effect.

The halo influenced commanders’ assessments and raised the ratings of all their other traits, including those that got them jobs they were not qualified to hold.

When contemplating something complex, your evaluation of one highly salient trait creates an invisible halo that taints how you perceive other unrelated and less-salient traits. For example, when scientists told subjects a photo attached to an essay was of the author (it wasn’t), subjects who saw attractive people in the photographs rated it as being better written than did people who saw a less attractive person in a photo attached to the same essay.

This is possibly why taller people make more money. One 2004 study showed that for every extra inch of height above normal a person earns on-average an extra $789 a year. This is also why candidates for president eat corndogs at state fairs. It makes them seem nice and approachable. A halo of niceness and approachability makes a person seem trustworthy enough to have access to nuclear launch codes.

The effect is not always positive. Researchers once asked two groups of students to watch two different interviews of the same professor who spoke with a Belgian accent (think Jean-Claude Van Damme). In one video, the professor pretended to be laid-back and aloof. In the other, he pretended to be mean and strict. About half of the students who believed the professor was easygoing also said his accent was endearing, yet among the group who believed he was a hard-ass about 80 percent said his accent was grating. Objectively, of course, the accent was neither good or bad, but the halo made it so.

This is possibly why taller people make more money.

If you find yourself rating a person, product, or company positively or negatively across the board on every characteristic and attribute, know that you are likely experiencing the halo effect. The important thing to remember about this phenomenon is that you can’t avoid its influence, but you can learn to recognize when you are under its spell and how to avoid its enchantment.

  • Notice when a single positive trait or credential makes a person seem desirable for a role in which that trait or credential would not improve your project. Individual attributes like attractiveness, height, recent successes, impressive former employers, and respected alma maters will skew your judgment, especially during first impressions. Make a list of what is not important and have a third party delete that information about a potential new hire, collaboration, or partnership before it reaches you.
  • Periodically destroy old halos. A powerful first impression, positive or negative, creates a halo that can survive for years. Look for consistency instead. Toss out your first impressions and periodically assess everything important as if it’s the first time you’ve judged it.

How about you?

Have impressive credentials or other traits caused you to make hiring or partnership decisions you later regretted because of the halo effect?

More insights on: Collaboration, Hiring

David McRaney

more posts →
David McRaney created the blog You Are Not So Smart where he writes about the psychology of self-delusion. He also hosts the podcast of the same name and is the author of the book based on the blog You Are Not So Smart and the sequel You Are Now Less Dumb, now available on Amazon.
load comments (17)
  • Jon

    Being aware of this phenomenon works to the advantage of say an interviewee. For example, when going on interviews, or to meet new potential clients I anticipate what the other person will wear and I dress slightly above that. If I think they’ll be wearing a polo short, I’ll wear a blazer. I do this to position myself as more authoritative, and professional. This is just one example, there are many more ways people are influenced by somewhat extraneous detail.

    • AK

      Interesting strategy with clients. I do the same thing but I don’t want to appear authoritative, I want to be relatable, so I try to dress at the same level. When approaching a business as an outsider I think it’s good to be seen as an easy fit into their culture. Depends on the field of work though. I’m a designer so making my client feel that I understand their business and culture thoroughly is important in the beginning. I let my work speak for my professionalism.

      • Warren

        Completely agree. As a director who often has to appoint consultants, agencies or freelancers, I’m immediately turned off by some stodgy suit.
        Jon sounds like a salesman.

    • MK

      If someone wears a blazer do you wear a tux?

  • Aaron Morton

    Yea I think its affects all of us. Thats the issue though, its a cognitive bias so typically occurs outside of our awareness!
    Good article

    The Confidence Lounge

  • growthguided

    What are some experiences where you have experienced the halo effect David?

  • AK

    It depends a little bit on the client, what kind of business they are in, and how well we know each other already. For the most part I’m somewhere around business casual but I use my ‘creative’ label to take liberties if I feel like. Nice jeans, moderately dressy shoes, and a collared shirt are good enough for me to feel comfortable talking to most CEOs.

    • HB

      Maybe it depends on the country you are in, but as an art director and creative director for several national and international agency’s, working on numerous big accounts I never dressed up or down. But I do make sure it’s always clean and has no (unintended) holes. As a joke me and my copywriter put on a suit once (yeah, I have those too, for family occaisions) and the (new) client asked where the creatives were LOL So if clients want to judge me by my ability to conform to their dressing ettiquette they’re sh*t out of luck and their minds imho

  • Irene Velveteen

    My halo effect on you is that you are a bitter person.
    This could be a load of bull also but we’ll never know. Because this is exactly what this post is about.

    • premiumwd

      :P there is actually more than 9 social, cognitive biases that can happen in promoting, hiring, firing, and assessing employee productivity. The halo effect is overemphasizing one trait to my perspective and ignoring others. It could be physical traits, emotional, and or mental traits. It is ignoring others and bloating one aspect. But thanks for the response, it’s a little late lol. Oh and you can find this out, search the almighty google about height and wealth :D

      • Irene Velveteen

        I enjoyed the irony thoroughly after becoming self aware I was doing exactly what the article states. Not a criticism on your part. You actually sound like a decent person now. Haha

      • premiumwd

        haha, glad to be of service of excelling to your perspective of me :P

  • foxyshadis

    You approached that rebuttal from the wrong direction. “On average taller people make more money” is not at all the same as “Richer people are taller”. The richest people in the world are all statistical outliers in the first place! Tim Judge did a huge study on height vs income, and with every other factor controlled for, height still meant more money across thousands of people.

    And I’m not sure how having less tall people than medium-sized is supposed to have anything to do with how much they’re paid.

    • premiumwd

      great response, and to your assessment, tall people are outliers as well. So if you state your argument that rich people are outliers, well so are tall people. Therefore you can state that tall people by default do not make more money. And to go further, what you assess as an outlier in height or income, really tall and really rich well the confidence interval and by statistics that % will be so low that there will be NO correlation.

      • foxyshadis

        Well, true, it depends on how much of an outlier — the Forbes 400 are all 4+ standard deviations outside the mean; someone who’s 6’6 is only 2 standard deviations yet often already considered impossible and unapproachable, an outlier. The richest are far beyond any conceivable wealth, which is why I call them outliers. It’s within 1 standard deviation of the mean that “normal” holds best, and the wage and leadership difference between 5’4 and 6’0 falls right into that, but it probably extends beyond. It’s fair to say that a rule that applies to at least 2/3 of the people is pretty well grounded.

        Similarly, Andre the Giant and his cohorts probably didn’t get especially rich, either.

        Although, I’d be interested in Forbes 400 height data, because it doesn’t seem to be available anywhere.

  • foxyshadis

    It’s all about fair vs unfair biases. A CV probably doesn’t have much to do with a professional’s unique skillsets, let alone a tradesman’s, but it says something about their professionalism, attention to detail, and so on, all of which do impact the business and are fair dealbreakers. You just have to be careful not to judge their skill, or portfolio, or interview answers based too much on that impression.

  • Brad Bass

    This is why I often let other staff assess the person without me being there. Then I ask for their impressions. At times, I found that I fell for the halo effect. Remember, in 2 seconds you have formed your first opinion about the person.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,133 other followers