The halo effect is a type of cognitive bias in which your initial superficial assessment of a person influences your perception of their other, more ambiguous traits. In the name of cultural journalism, I conducted an informal experiment to test this. I posted five different photographs of myself to a website called Photofeeler, which people mostly use for their acting headshots, company photographs, and online dating profiles. Strangers vote on your attractiveness, trustworthiness, and intelligence, and, using a weighted algorithm, the website tells you the percentile you’re in compared with the rest of the people on the website so you can choose the best photograph. The photo of mine that was voted the most attractive—my fingers awkwardly crinkled around a wineglass on a terrasse—was the one in which I was voted smartest and most trustworthy. The photograph in which I was deemed ugliest—sitting in a cab—was the one in which I was voted dumbest and least trustworthy. In every photograph, my perceived attractiveness determined my perceived trustworthiness and intelligence, traits that, of course, are impossible for anyone to actually know from a picture.
The notion of the halo effect and the idea that “beauty is good”—meaning that we assume people who are prettier must also be cleverer, kinder, more moral than uglier people—were first tested in 1972 by the psychologists Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster. They found that people almost uniformly believed that those who they found more attractive on the basis of three small photographs were also more generous and more stable and had better marriages, better jobs, and better families than less attractive people. A similar study from just a few years ago found that people trust those they consider more attractive significantly more quickly than those they consider less attractive.
Is beauty, therefore, the most useful trait one might have? Read More