The halo effect is a cognitive bias, and it represents the idea that overall impressions dominate the way we perceive others.
For example, if we find a person likable at a first hand impression, then we are more likely to judge the same person as being smart, intelligent, and other similar positive and likable traits, and vice versa. First hand impressions may influence the way we see a person in a negative way as well.
The notion of the halo effect can be traced back to Thorndike (1920, as cited in Lachmann & Bass, 1985):
“Ratings were apparently affected by a marked tendency to think of the person in general as rather good or rather inferior …” (p. 25).
A study by Nisbett & Wilson (1977) provides evidence of the halo effect. The authors found it to be an unconscious process of judgment. This means that our first hand impressions unconsciously dominate the way we perceive others.
For this reason, it is often difficult to determine what it is that makes a person likable. Is it the friendliness, the accent, or perhaps the generosity?
We often have different (unconscious) first hand impressions, and this is due to the fact that we as individuals perceive differently, depending on our unique backgrounds. The exactly same person may therefore be viewed as either good, inferior, or somewhere in between, as Thorndike stated.