The Halo Effect: Your Readers are Applying it

So the hero in my latest release has a few unlikeable traits (as in, pretty unethical and unsavoury behaviours), which would be fine in some genres, but not so much in romance. I realised that if I was going to have an online stalker who has come to some pretty dark conclusions about humanity, I needed to address this fairly early on in the book if I wanted my readers to fall in love with him alongside my heroine. Actually, if I wanted them to read past the second chapter!

I decided on the strategy I was going to use, but I began to reflect on the psychology behind Blake Snyder’s famous tactic. The tactic (which some of you would have guessed by now) we’ll discuss shortly; the science behind is the bit we’re going to delve into first, and it’s called the ‘halo effect.’

The halo effect

The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person (“Gosh, he’s nice!”) impacts your evaluations of that person’s specific traits (“He’s probably also smart!”). We assume that because Johnny is good at A, then he must be good at B, C, and D. Conversely, it also works the other way (called the horn effect); if Danny is bad at A, then he must be bad at B, C, and D.

 

Psychologist Edward Thorndike first coined the term in 1920. Thorndike asked commanding officers in the military to evaluate a variety of qualities in their soldiers. These characteristics included such things as leadership, physical appearance, intelligence, loyalty, and dependability. He found that high ratings of a particular quality correlated to high ratings of other characteristics, while negative ratings of a specific quality also led to lower ratings of other characteristics. Soldiers were far more likely to be assessed as good in all areas or bad in all areas, even when there was no obvious correlation between the traits.

So yes, first impressions count out in the real world (which means they also do in your story).

Check out these other examples of the halo effect:

  • We tend to perceive celebrities as attractive and successful, meaning we also tend to see them as intelligent and funny.
  • Teachers are subject to the halo effect when evaluating their students. A teacher who sees a well-behaved student might tend to assume this student is also bright, diligent, and engaged (it’s actually how I see many students slip through the cracks in our educational system).
  • The halo effect can also impact how students perceive teachers. In one study, researchers found that when an instructor was viewed as warm and friendly, students also rated him as more attractive, appealing, and likable (I’m glad I made it a point to smile at my students during my teaching years!).
  • In the work setting, the halo effect is most likely to show up in a supervisor’s appraisal of a subordinate. In fact, the halo effect is probably the most common bias in performance appraisal. The supervisor may give prominence to a single characteristic of the employee, such as enthusiasm, and allow the entire evaluation to be coloured by how he or she judges the employee on that one characteristic. The employee could have areas they have yet to achieve competence in, but if they show enthusiasm, the supervisor may very well give them a higher performance rating than is justified.
  • Marketers take advantage of the halo effect to sell products and services. The iPod is a great example—a popular product, it functioned as a great launching pad for the iPhone.

What’s more, researchers have found that attractiveness is a factor that can be influential in the halo effect. The truth is, we tend to rate attractive people more favourably for their personality traits than those who are less attractive. Several different studies have found that when we rate people as good-looking, we also tend to believe that they have positive personality traits and that they are more intelligent. If a prospective employer views an application as attractive, they are more likely to rate the individual as intelligent, competent, and qualified (and no, that’s not fair). What’s more, one study even found that jurors were less likely to believe that attractive people were guilty of criminal behaviour (so crime writers out there—consider making your murderer attractive if you’re looking for them to get away with it).

Harnessing the halo effect in your story

Deliberate use of the halo effect can be a powerful writers tool. The idea is to create the impression you want the reader to build upon early on. If you’re looking to create a good impression, you can do this by showing your character as funny or smart, and possibly attractive. Your readers brain will extrapolate from there without even realising it. My character was certainly smart, and the reader got that sense from his hacking knowledge and sharp dialogue. And yes, he’s good looking, but he’s also significantly scarred. Capturing a romance reader in this scenario was going to be a challenge.

The literary device that I used was Save the Cat; a term coined by the late Blake Snyder—a scene relatively early in the story where the reader meets the hero and he/she does something ‘nice.’ Often it will have a heroic flavour, like oh, saving a cat. If that action has enough emotional impact, your reader will start making generalisations about the character’s other personality traits.

In my particular scene, chapter two in fact, we’re introduced to Erik, who is stalking his peers online without them knowing of his existence. What’s more, the reader realises he’s been doing this for some time, and he does not have a very high opinion of humanity. By the end of the scene he also saves one of said peers from being blackmailed by his brother.

On the other side of the coin, you have the ‘kick the dog’ scene. If you want to create a first impression of your villain, then have them commit some act of unpleasantness. If a villain is kicking a dog in chapter two, my brain is going to put two and two together and conclude this dude isn’t very nice in other areas of his life. It’s fascinating that this cognitive shortcut happens outside of my awareness will set up my expectations for the remainder of the book.

The cool bit is that this allows you, the author, to either confirm these suspicions, or blow them off the page.

What do you think? Have you ever used Save the Cat? Can you see how the halo effect worked its magic in a story you’ve written? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

for_all_to_see_2_3d-2After being scarred by an unimaginable lie, Erik commits his skills with computers to expose the masks of others. His world of hacking allows him to live the life of a recluse, protected and safe, as he works to rid people of the veneers they use to protect themselves.

Christine isn’t sure she likes Erik – he’s cynical, secretive, and lives like a mole. But when Christine mysteriously loses the photos that are the key to her dream, she needs someone to retrieve them anonymously, and Erik is the one that can do it.

When Christine discovers Erik’s skills, when she begins to fear that what he’s suggested is true, she asks him to help her dig far deeper than she ever thought possible. As Erik and Christine uncover a lie she could never have conceived, as they challenge their long-held assumptions, they’ll have to learn that there’s only one thing that can conquer betrayal.

Love.

FOR ALL TO SEE

6 comments

  1. Thanks for another interesting post, Tamar! Reality can be the very opposite of what Halo Effect suggests. The better someone is at A, the WORSE they may be at B, something I’ve heard psychologists label ‘Scatter’. I first heard about that in a video by Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson, who pointed out, for example, that there is NO correlation between intelligence and wisdom!

    ‘Halo Effect’ would certainly seem to explain why so many people pay so much attention to the opinions of celebrities on subjects they are NOT celebrated for and know little or nothing (or LESS than nothing!) about. I mean, who appointed movie stars and pop singers as experts on every subject under the sun?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see the halo effect in the teen girls I work with – they assume the pretty ‘popular’ girls are smarter, funnier etc and obviously have a better life than them. The more assumptions and generalisations we make, the further we move away from the complexity and diversity of truth!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Please excuse a detour off-topic, but, speaking of pop singers, no doubt you’ve heard Australia is now part of Europe, at least for the purpose of the Eurovision Song Contest, which has just been won by Israel, a Middle-Eastern country!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Tamar!
    Great article! The Halo effect is a brilliant psyche term and applies to character development perfectly. I am always thinking about Save the Cat and how to get readers to both like and dislike a character simultaneously. That dichotomy is what I strive for and makes the reader uneasy—another of my favorite things to do.
    In the first chapter of The Sleeping Serpent the reader isn’t quite sure about Nico. I hope I was able to Save the Cat! Nico is warm and friendly and is absorbed intently in conversation with Luna. He askes all about her which appears to be a good trait, taking interest in others, engaging them. He is an accomplished healer and lived around the world studying kundalini yoga and the mystical healing arts of the Andes. And, it doesn’t hurt that he is handsome. As the story unfolds we learn he was abandoned and he is devastated by his mother’s death, and that he couldn’t save her. So, I hope I was able to bring in the Halo effect by having readers like him and feel compassion and sympathy for him. But we also learn he has a dark side. His affliction has made him needy, manipulative and he craves the spotlight of success—wealth and celebrity. He has anxiety melt downs and characters want to fix him. I like complex characters. We are all damaged, some of us more so than others. We all strive to be successful in our trade, and we are all insecure in many ways. Nico suffers, and we aren’t sure if the darkness will consume him and everyone in his path.
    I would love your take on The Sleeping Serpent if you have had a chance to read it. I am working on the next book now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article! Very useful in clarifying what I’m trying to achieve in getting readers to like my protagonist and dislike my antagonist. Next step is muddying those halo / horn effects as the plot unfolds…

    Liked by 2 people

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