Saturday, May 14

The 'halo effect'

Isn't it unfair when people are so damn talented? Watching Lady Gaga interviewed on the Graham Norton show last night made me realise that not only is she musical, galmourous and massively successful, but she's also smart and witty too.  But was I being objective?

The 'halo effect'

In Psychology, the 'halo effect' is the idea that global evaluations about a person (e.g. "she is beautiful") affect judgements about their specific traits (e.g. "she is talented"). Pop stars demonstrate the halo effect perfectly: because they are often good-looking and charismatic, we tend to assume they are also intelligent, friendly and so on.

Youth an looks are two traits which often
lead to the Halo Effect.  Image: thomas23

The halo effect was first described by psychologist Edward Thorndike, and later Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrated how little access we actually have to our thought processes in general and to the halo effect in particular.  

In their study, one group of participants watched a lecturer answer a series of questions in an extremely warm and friendly manner.  A second group saw exactly the same person answer in a cold and distant manner. Consistent with the halo effect, students who saw the 'warm' version of the lecturer rated his attractiveness, mannerisms and accent more highly. The students were also totally unaware why they gave one lecturer higher ratings.


Do you think the halo effect can work for (or against) you in a writing career? Whatever a reader first encounters is going to influence their later judgements - and often, this will not be physical appearance.  A cover of a book (despite the aphorism) or its first page will play a huge role in whether someone reads on.  Websites, social networking presence and even pen names can affect how you are judged and evaluated.

And what about query letters?  Do yours show personality?  Have you tried asking other people how they come across?  Try drafting a couple of letters, and asking a friend which one they like best. Remember, they might not know why they like it!

Nisbett, R.E. and Wilson, T.D. (1977).  Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes.  Psychological review, 84(3), 231-259.

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