The Halo Effect

Statue with haloIf you’ve ever chosen a product based on its packaging, taken an instant liking to a person because he/she was tall & good-looking, or defended the merits of your hometown against all others, you’ve experienced the Halo Effect.

According to Wikipedia, the halo effect (or “halo error”) is “a cognitive bias in which one’s judgments of a person’s character can be influenced by one’s overall impression of him or her.” Some speculate that it grew from our most primitive ancestors: a tall, good-looking person was well-fed, had won (or avoided) battles, and seemed to be a good candidate for fathering one’s children.

Around here, we’ve been looking at our current and future needs and trying to figure out which products will help us achieve what we want. Some of us take an instant dislike to a product because of a  seemingly-trivial factor. It could be color, the salesperson, or almost anything that triggers a negative memory about a previous product. That’s called the “Devil Effect,” by the way: we demonize something because of deep-seated and inexplicable feelings. Imagine the consequences of the devil effect in a jury trial!

If you think about it, the halo effect is just as treacherous. We might overlook a product’s failings because we like the color, the salesperson…you get the idea. The halo effect makes it tough to be impartial.

While we can’t do much about our cognitive wiring, knowing about the halo effect can help us be more aware of the potential for bias. It can even make us more aware of how we present professional writing: even if my message is rock-solid, if I don’t present it cleanly, the reader might not receive it favorably.

That’s why we care about good page or screen design, sometimes even more than the content. There are cognitive reasons to pay attention to alignment, balance, contrast, consistency–what some of us refer to as the CRAP design principles.

Finally, the experts at Nielsen Norman Group applied the halo effect to web usability testing, and the results are interesting to say the least. Take a look at Alertbox: The Halo Effect and see for yourself.

 Photo Credit: bossa67 via Compfight cc
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