The Power of First Impressions

In this sectionwe are discussing first impressions (Halo/Devil Effect), because first impressions result from characteristics that trigger stereotypes and bias. We see an expensive suit, and we immediately form an image of a consummate professional (stereotype). We note a degree from a prestigious university and we "know" that person must be incredibly competent (bias). We see a shabby suit and and a degree from a community college, and we might believe this person is an incompetent loser. Read on....

The Halo/Devil Effects

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What exactly is the Halo Effect?

A psychology textbook provides a "simplistic" definition of the Halo effect as a subjective bias about a person's one outstanding trait extending to influence the total judgment of that person.First Impression 1.jpg

E. L. Thorndike's 1920 paper titled "A Constant Error on Psychological Rating", published in Journal of Applied Psychology first documented this perception error (wahrnehmungsfehler) with regard to rating employees.  This has also been followed up by Phil Rosenzweig's book on the same topic called The Halo Effect... and Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers.

Thorndike therein defined the halo effect as "a problem that arises in data collection when there is carry-over from one judgment to another."

First Impressions are powerful!

He further expanded that it is " extension of an overall impression of a person (or one particular outstanding trait) to influence the total judgment of that person. The effect is to evaluate an individual high on many traits because of a belief that the individual is high on one trait. Similar to this is the 'devil effect,' whereby a person evaluates another as low on many traits because of a belief that the individual is low on one trait which is assumed to be critical."

So, to clarify, if possible, when an individual is found to possess one desirable trait, then that individual is automatically assumed to have many other desirable traits as well. A kind of an "angelic halo" surrounds the person, in the eyes of the beholder, and they can do no wrong. If a person is bestowed with good physical beauty, then this person is also presumed to possess a host of other positive attributes as well, such as social competence, intellectual competence, and personal adjustment.

The inverse phenomenon called the "Devil Effect," and sometimes the "Horn Effect", doesn't seem to get as much attention, even though its impact is just as prevalent in society. Here, if a person seems particularly deficient in a critical trait,First Impression 2.jpg then that person is automatically assumed to be deficient in many other traits as well, related or otherwise. For example, an employee who is constantly "late" to work (perhaps due to other non-work responsibilities in the morning) is assumed to be negligent in their work-related duties, not committed to the job/company/project, and perhaps even lazy overall.

First Impressions are powerful!


Ultimately, these faulty biases may prove to become factual due to the Pygmalion effect, or "self-fulfilling prophecy ", further reinforcing future errors in perception due to bias and predisposition by the observer. The person working long hours (perhaps compensating for technical incompetence), assumed to be a good worker is given greater opportunity and thus attains greater, albeit undue, career advancement (cf: The Peter Principle). Conversely, the worker who dresses shabbily is assumed to care little about their job, and therefore bypassed for greater opportunity when the situation arises, regardless of suitability or capacity otherwise. Essentially, this phenomenon is a psycho-social application of the Law of Proximity, whereby certain unrelated observations, found in the comparable subjects in a narrow sample set, are assumed to have a high correlation, when, in fact, no such correlation exists.


First Impressions are powerful!


There are a number of different ways in which the psychology of the halo (or devil) effect may manifest. As you will see, the halo effect is a form of a cognitive bias.

Instead of seeing the observable behaviors of a person, instead we see a certain picture. From this picture we draw conclusions about them which have no bearing in reality.

A person who is highly connected or good friends with those deemed to possess positive traits is erroneously assumed to possess those same good traits in "birds of a feather flock together" fashion.

If we know the societal role or other demographic information, the person targeted by the halo effect (or devil effect) will be perceived as "just like" all others who have held a similar role. We do not see the distinctions between people of this group and instead simply see:





Blue Collar Worker

Inner City Dweller

Noticing only one or two characteristics, unrelated conclusions are drawn based upon personal experience, social bias, or group norming.

People who smile are honest.

Blondes are unintelligent.

Within a person and/or a person's group, certain desirable characteristics are noticeably absent. For example, when there is a superstar in a group, it's very easy to misinterpret the actions of those who would otherwise be deemed at least average performers as poor performers, simply because of the context of the evaluation.

With a person or group, characteristics are noticed which are very similar to our own or those we respect greatly. While similar (no pun intended) to the Social Bias listed above, instead of having a desirable social standing, instead this person possesses actual traits which are noticeably similar to those who have created a strong bias in the observer. So, while the person is obviously a distinct and unique individual, the fact that he reminds you of your shiftless, no good, brother-in-law, impacts further observations.

The very first impression left with the observer overrides all subsequent impressions, until a very strong and distinct impression is made to alter the existing path. The first impression is a psychology concept similar to that of inertia or momentum in the physical sciences.


The perception of a person orients itself at few conspicuous characteristics. All other characteristics are ignored. The effect describes the tendency, in order to form a certain characteristic of a person a "yard" and derive from it spreading acceptance. A well dressed lady also as wealthy and more educated than the same lady in a Jogging suit.



Ultimately, the halo effect, much like many psychology concepts, can be used as a tool for motivating others to a desired end, or a phenomenon to specifically be alert to when relating to and evaluating situations and people.

Left alone, the halo effect can negatively impact all areas of management. Interviewers can wrongly infer that a candidate has a slew of required characteristics or attributes, simply because the candidate exhibited others which were desirable.

Managers responsible for employee ratings, can let the strong rating of one critical factor influence the ratings for all other factors exhibit the halo effect. The halo effect is also demonstrated when an overall global impression influences ratings. This problem occurs with employees who are friendly (or unfriendly) toward you or especially strong (or weak) in one skill.

Having clear and specific ratings standards can help avoid the halo effect. Another means to traverse the hazards of the halo effect is completely assess the performance on one performance factor before moving on to the next factor. Finally, simply being aware of the halo effect and how it works may afford one the opportunity more objective judgment and to be able to see if its harmful effects are at work.

We tend to think of the power of first impressions in regards to job applicants making a good impression when they come for an interview, and in that case a first impression can be incredibly powerful. However, I would like you to also consider the dangers of first impressions. Everybody applies stereotypes to individuals and has biases based on those stereotypes. A very positive (to our biases) first impression can cause us to hire a person based on a $2500 suit, perfect hair and a degree from an Ivy League college instead of their actual knowledge, skills and abilities.

First Impressions are dangerous!


Below is a brief (6:21 min.) video that explains the halo effect through a series of experiments that are interesting as well as informative - okay, maybe even a bit frightening....


In the final sections of this lesson, we will learn some tips for recognizing and overcoming our biases in the interview process, and all our interactions with individuals.


But first, another little quiz............


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