Episode 105: Halo Effect

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Episode Summary

Did you know that people consider good-looking individuals more intelligent, more successful, and more popular? That studies even shown that attractive people get lighter prison sentences when judged for the same crime as an unattractive person? It's all down to a cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect.

Join the Choice Hacking podcast as we explore how to use the Halo Effect to create more effective, persuasive, and engaging customer experiences.

Episode Transcript (click to expand)

0:00:00.2 Jennifer Clinehens: This week on Choice Hacking.

0:00:05.5 Speaker 2: You went to Plunder for lunch? How did you get a table? 

0:00:07.8 Speaker 3: I don't know, it was packed, but they just gave Drew a table. It is ridiculous how people treat him, the chef sent over food, ladies sent drinks, Mayor Bloomberg asked him to dance...

0:00:18.5 Speaker 2: Well, beautiful people are treated differently from moderately pleasant-looking people.

0:00:24.6 Speaker 3: It's true.

0:00:25.0 S2: They live in a bubble, a bubble of free drinks, kindness and outdoor sex.

0:00:28.3 JC: That's a clip from the sitcom 30 Rock, starring Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. In this episode, Tina Fey's character is dating an extremely handsome doctor named Drew, played by actor Jon Hamm. And what Alec Baldwin's character is describing here is an extreme example of the halo effect. The halo effect states that one feature of a person, product or business can be so appealing that it makes us believe its flaws aren't really so bad.

0:00:56.3 JC: In the case of people, studies have shown that thinking someone is attractive can make you believe that they're more honest, more intelligent or more kind. Even just being taller than average can make people think you're more skilled than you are. It's not to say that tall or attractive people can't be smart, funny and honest. It's just that the halo effect of their looks forces people to give them the benefit of the doubt.

0:01:16.5 JC: So take professional basketball players, for instance. So in his book, The Undoing Project, one of my favorite authors, the amazing Michael Lewis, described the effect that simply talking to a tall person had on NBA scouts. He wrote, "Ten years of grilling extremely tall people had reinforced in Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, the sense that he should resist the power of any face-to-face interaction with some other person to influence his judgment. Job interviews were magic shows. He needed to fight whatever he felt during them, especially if he and everyone else in the room felt charmed. Extremely tall people had an unusual capacity to charm." But the halo effect has much more to teach us than just tall people are charming or attractive people are given the benefit of the doubt. We can harness the halo effect to help us create persuasive, effective and emotional customer experiences.

0:02:11.1 JC: I'm Jennifer Clinehens, and you're listening to Choice Hacking, a podcast about applying behavioral science and psychology to business, from customer experience to product design, marketing and more. Join me today as we examine the halo effect and how it guides customer behavior, emotions, memories and choice.


0:02:42.6 JC: But before we get started, let's give a shoutout to the company who helps bring you this podcast, Audible. Since you're enjoying a podcast right now, I'm gonna take a guess that you love listening. And maybe if you're like me, you love listening to audiobooks as well as podcasts. Well, now, more than ever, audio content is becoming many people's preferred way to learn, connect and be entertained. At the moment, I'm enjoying my audiobook of the month, Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street. Reportedly, this is one of Bill Gates' favorite books so I picked up a copy. It's full of dramatic and fascinating real-life stories of iconic companies that were defined by a single moment of fame or notoriety. It's a really fun and enlightening listen, and you can get it for free when you visit choicehacking.com/audible and sign up for your free 30-day trial of Audible Plus.


0:03:37.7 JC: And don't forget, you can get exclusive podcast episodes, e-books, courses, webinars and more when you become a Choice Hacking member. When you subscribe, you'll get access to our content vault, as well as the new example vault with tons of real life examples of behavioral science principles applied in advertising, marketing, product design and customer experiences. You also get unlimited access to all Choice Hacking courses. Check out choicehacking.com/subscribe for details, and make sure to use the code 'PODCAST 20' to save 20% of the price of an annual membership. Now, on to the show.


0:04:20.9 JC: What is the halo effect? It's what's called a cognitive bias, which very simply is an error in thinking. Now, it's worth taking a minute to talk about cognitive biases because I've seen some really smart people in my career who believe they couldn't possibly be the victim of an error in thinking. They think, "I have advanced degrees and I have a fancy job, I've made lots of money, so how could my thinking be wrong?" The simple answer is, our brains have to make so many decisions a day, some studies say up to 35,000, and every one of these decisions eats up precious brain power. Of all the calories someone needs in a day, about 20% of those eaten get eaten by our brains, which is a lot for an organ that makes up only 2% of our total body weight. Because decisions are costly, and there are so many of them, we have to rely on heuristics, which are mental shortcuts and cognitive biases like the halo effect to make some assumptions and quick decisions based on limited information. So the halo effect is one of these principles that steps in to take some of the burden off of our brains when we have to make those thousands of daily decisions.


0:05:32.4 JC: The term itself was coined by a psychologist, Edward Thorndike. Thorndike discovered the effect after noticing that commanding officers in the military judged their soldiers to be either all good or all bad. Almost no one was described as good at one thing, but bad at another. One positive or negative trait disproportionately influenced the officer's opinions. So in other words, a tall and attractive man might be seen as good, whereas a man who was less attractive wasn't seen as a particularly great soldier or leader, and was therefore labeled bad.


0:06:09.0 JC: So this is all great, but what does this mean for business or designing customer experiences? 


0:06:16.6 JC: The halo effect can take a lot of different forms in business and experience design. For example, a customer might love all Apple products because they have an iPhone that they adore, so they assume, rightly or not, that every Apple product must be as fun and simple to use as their iPhone. Or a customer might see a brand that makes generous donations to a cause like TOMS Shoes, who famously would give a free pair of their shoes to a person in need whenever a customer themselves bought a pair. Now, someone might look at a purpose-driven company like TOMS and then assume that their product is more durable and strong, or even that their shoes are more fashionable and trendy than they are. Sale products can even have a halo effect on complementary products.

0:07:00.1 JC: So why is that? Well, their promotion works as a mental trigger that reminds people to buy related items. So for example, consulting firm McKinsey found that dental care items are powerful mental triggers. For example, putting a toothbrush on sale drives people to buy more products in the overall oral care category, so things like toothpaste, mouthwash and floss. Even when they aren't on sale, just showing certain key products can drive sales of related products. McKinsey did another analysis that found limes drive sales of chicken, vegetables, rice, pasta and alcohol in North American grocery stores. According to their research, this is because limes are a key ingredient in many Mexican dishes, a popular cuisine in the United States. Limes can cause shoppers to make extra unplanned purchases and they don't even have to be on sale. Simply placing baskets of limes in different locations in the store drove sales of complementary products. But what about digital experiences? Can the halo effect change how users view a product? 


0:08:12.5 JC: A research firm called Decision Lab decided to investigate this question. They ran a study where they showed users two login pages. Now, each page had identical functionality but different levels of design. The researchers then asked users to rate the pages' attractiveness. So when users liked the design of a page, they were more likely to rate it as intuitive, reliable and secure. The difference between the perceived performance of each page was staggering. The attractive page was rated 104% more reliable, 37% more intuitive, and 152% more resilient to hacking. So like many of the behavioral science and psychological principles we've examined, there are two sides to the halo effect. And when it comes to design and functionality, the halo effect does have an effect, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't trade one for the other. After all, users might rate a site as being more functional or working better because it's pretty, but eventually, they still need the experience to do what they needed to do.

0:09:12.3 JC: Thank you for listening to the Choice Hacking podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you could please consider checking out my book, Choice Hacking, available on any major Internet book retailer like Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Google Books, and in audiobook form on Amazon, iTunes and Audible. You can even download the first chapter free if you visit choicehacking.com/freechapter.

0:09:36.9 JC: As always, you can find me, Jen Clinehens, on Twitter, @choicehacking, or follow Choice Hacking on LinkedIn or Instagram. Don't forget to check out our new Facebook group, Behavioral Science in Action, where we're building a free community of people who wanna apply behavioral science and psychology to their marketing products and customer experiences. Until next time.

Episode Notes 

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