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The Science Behind First Impressions: How The Halo Effect Can Lend You Instant Credibility

Ever meet someone who you decide you instantly like because they made such a great first impression?

I have friends who absolutely love Gabe Newell, the CEO of Valve. I am also in possession of a brain that has decided it loves Gabe Newell as well.

Why do we love Mr. Newell? In my case, I actually only have a few pieces of information to go on:

  • He’s the CEO of a company that makes great games
  • He sent all of his employees to Hawaii once
  • He actually replied when I sent him an email

Now, those three pieces of information are probably sufficient enough for us to assume that Gabe’s a pretty damn nice guy. However, the feelings that I, my friends, and gamers the world over share for the man go far beyond, “Yeah, he’s a pretty nice guy.”

Clearly, some gaps are being filled in here – not with actual evidence, but with emotional over-simplification. In fact, this is an example of a common psychological phenomenon that you should probably know a bit about.

Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: 

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves.”

We call this the Halo Effect.

Also known as “Exaggerated Emotional Coherance”, the Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to do two things:

  • Base our judgements of a person’s character, actions, etc on our overall impressions of them
  • Use our emotional responses to fill in gaps in our understanding of a person not filled by actual evidence

Our brains naturally simplify things so they can attempt to understand them better; therefore, it’s not incredibly surprising that this happens.

First Impressions Weigh Heavily

Remember that the Halo Effect is the phenomenon in which our overall impression of a person influences our judgement of their character and evaluation of their performance.

However, the overall impression we get of someone is heavily influenced by our first impression. 

The Kahneman quote above about the speaker rings true; his entrance onto the stage, coupled with his first few words, constitute the initial impression he makes on you.

You believe this impression will set the tone for the rest of his speech, and if he does a good job up front, you’re likely to give him the benefit of the doubt for any mistakes later one.

Kahnman illustrates the importance of first impressions even more clearly in his book by presenting the findings of a famous psychological study by Solomon Asch.

In this study, participants were given descriptions of two people: Alan and Ben. After looking at the descriptions, they’d be asked to comment on the personalities of each one. Here are the descriptions:

  • Alan: intelligent — industrious — impulsive — critical — stubborn — envious
  • Ben: Envious — stubborn — critical — impulsive — industrious — intelligent

Most participants in the study viewed Alan more favorably than Ben.

If you didn’t recognize this as a psychological test and prime your brain to override the cognitive bias you probably thought it was examining, then you probably viewed Alan more favorably as well – even though the qualities of both men are the exact same.

The message here is clear: first impressions matter. 

“Make a good first impression when meeting someone; their brain will pretty much fill in the rest.” – Tweet This

It’s simply our nature; we tend to base our judgements about people on the initial impressions we get.

The Role of Looks and Confidence

Attractiveness plays a large role in producing the Halo Effect as well. There’s probably a pretty intuitive reason for this rooted in evolutionary psychology that I could go into, but I’ll spare you the details here.

Now, attractiveness is a multi-faceted quality. Lots of factors go into it – height, weight, build, eyes, hair, etc. Of course, having an epic beard is probably the biggest factor in attractiveness, but the other qualities count as well.

Also, attractiveness isn’t solely defined by physical traits. Your personality counts, and so does this little quality called confidence.

Being confident means knowing that you can achieve what you set your mind to. It’s having the audacity to set your mind to big things in the first place.

It’s also simply believing in your own attractiveness.

I believe I’m good-looking. It doesn’t really matter if you think so or not; I believe it myself.

The reason there is a big picture of me in front of Mt. Fuji on this site isn’t just because I like the picture – it’s because I’m confident it makes me look good, which in turn increases the probability of you judging me as a competent writer.

This is different from cockiness, as I’m not tactlessly going around gloating about myself or being dismissive about obstacles, the feelings of others, or reality in general.

You can use this confidence in all manner of situations, whether it’s going up to a recruiter at a career fair or asking someone out.

But I’m not Good-Looking or Confident!

Well, first things first, remember – your confidence plays a huge role in how attractive you look to others.

William Dafoe, Steve Bruschemy, and John C. Reilly are all actors who are often perceived as objectively unattractive from a physical standpoint, but their confidence and suave demeanor more than make up for that supposed fault.

What this should mean to you is that, no matter who you are or what you look like, you should work on instilling confidence in yourself.

Of course, confidence comes from stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things that make you feel accomplished, so you’re going to have to work and feel uncomfortable at times to do it.

But it’s worth it.

And remember: on the flip side, working on your appearance can boost your confidence. Not all of us are gifted with perfect features in every area (I’m only 22 and one side of my hairline is already receding), but there are definitely areas all of us can work on.

Personal hygiene, good sleep, solid nutrition, and exercise are all things that can help you improve your appearance, thus improving your confidence – and that’s not even mentioning the fact that they’ll boost your confidence on their own! (I always feel amazing after a good workout)

If you want a great example about health improvements boosting confidence, check out Daniel’s transformation story over on NerdFitness.

Now, putting my blanket-statement recommendation to work on your confidence aside, I’d now like to point out something else:

You Control the Medium

Your first interaction with somebody doesn’t have to be under the bright lights of the basketball gym where they’re holding the career fair. The initial impression you make doesn’t need to be a sweaty-palmed handshake and a long string of awkward pauses and neck scratches.

The internet gives you tremendous power to make connections with lots of cool people without ever showing them your nervous mug.

If you have the ability to write confidently and pose for a couple decent pictures, you don’t actually need much else right off the bat.

In fact, if you’ve never met me in person or seen one of my videos, how do you actually know I’m not just some nervous wreck who hides in his mom’s basement?

Communicating through a blog or social media gives you the ability to tailor your image, and that’s a very powerful ability.

Why do you think people often prefer to flirt through text messages or on Facebook? In addition to technology’s ability to mitigate the fear of rejection by lack of proximity, it’s also because these channels give us the ability to take our time composing the messages we send.

You might actually be surprised to find out that some high-profile bloggers are quite different in real life than they appear to be online.

For example, my friend Sean Davis used to run a few blogs back in 2011. When I discovered him around that time, his pictures and writing style on those blogs gave me the impression that he was an overly nice guy – kinda like a youth pastor would be or something.

When I actually met Sean at BlogWorld in 2012, I found a guy brimming with wit and no small amount of military intensity. Sean’s still a nice and super cool guy in real life, but he’s the kind of nice guy who listens to Tupac and will tell you you’re a dingus if it needs to be said.

Now, I think Sean’s done some work to let that true personality show online these days, but the idea still holds. You can control how you appear online.

Bottom line: you can control the way you appear through different mediums. Some are easier to control than others.

Where To From Here?

If you’re interested in learning more about the Halo Effect, as well as lots of other cognitive biases, I highly recommend reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I’m only a little ways into the book right now, and I’ve already filled it with highlights. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to learn how the brain works.

As for the Halo Effect – use it to your advantage.

  • Recognize your own brain’s use of this bias when dealing with others, and try to judge them more accurately in the future.
  • Work on your confidence and appearance (exercise, nutrition, sleep, etc) in order to use the effect to your advantage
  • Think about the impression you’d like to make on people who discover you through any medium, and work to tailor your image toward that goal. This is the main point of personal branding.

Have you noticed an example of the Halo Effect in your own life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments 🙂


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