What do you think of Alan and Ben?
Alan: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious
Ben: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent
If you are like most people, you like Alan more than Ben. But take a closer look. Alan and Ben are identical. The initial prominent traits in the list dominate your judgment, and even shape the lens through which you view the later characteristics.
This is the same reason why most people think the french fries on the Whole Foods hot bar are better for them than the french fries at McDonald's, and why people can convince themselves that organic mac and cheese, fried chicken, and pizza are notso-bad. It’s called a “halo effect,” and with keen awareness, you can protect yourself from falling victim to it.
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A halo effect occurs when one positive attribute of a person, place, or thing dominates the way that person, place, or thing is viewed by others. Halo effects are even stronger if the positive attribute is the first thing that you notice.
The most extensive research on halo effects has been done surrounding politicians, where research dating back to the 1970’s (led by psychologists Efran and Patterson) has found that attractive candidates receive significantly more votes than unattractive ones. Yet voters are completely unaware of their bias. When asked if physical appearance played any role in their decision, a sweeping majority of voters deny that the attractiveness of the candidate mattered at all.
How does this happen?
The first and most salient thing a voter notices about a candidate is how he or she looks. If the candidate is good-looking, rather than take the mental energy to analyze the relationship between attractiveness and the traits required to be a good politician, the brain takes a shortcut and assumes that everything else about that candidate must also be good.
So how does this relate to health?
The mistake most people make in judging Alan and Ben is the same one that people make when they assume sports drinks are healthier than soda (nope) or that the french fries at Whole Foods aren’t so bad for you (they are). While a drop of Vitamin C in an ocean of liquid sugar does not make a “health” drink, the always savvy beverage marketers understand well how halo effects work. That’s why the word “sports” overlaid on vibrant and radiating colors is the first and most striking thing you notice about the sugar-laden drink.
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The best way to shield yourself from health halos is to 1) be on the lookout for them and 2) force yourself to take the extra mental energy to analyze all of something, not just the first or most apparent part of it. For example, whenever I see anything branded as “healthy,” I’m more - not less - likely to take an extra moment to investigate further and really think critically about whether it is good for me or not. I’ve retrained my brain to have an instinctive reaction of “caution” instead of “go for it” in the midst health branding.
Although being aware of the halo effect is especially important in the health and fitness industry - where marketers are explicitly trying to take advantage of everyone’s desire for good health - it is a good practice to get info for everything. My guess is that a lot of poor hires (and bad relationships) could have been avoided with knowledge of the halo effect.
Like your parents probably told you, never judge a book by its cover.
Note: The Alan and Ben experiment was designed and first administered by the psychologist Solomon Asch.