The words halo and horn evoke some celestial images in the mind — of angels and devils, of hell and heaven. However, the psychological effects they reflect aren’t as literal. Oxford defines the halo and horn effect as “an effect in which one person’s judgement of another is unduly influenced by a first impression”. The impression may be positive, as reflected by the halo, or negative, as reflected by the horn.
First Impressions and Physical Attractiveness
When first impressions are a thing of real life, virtual life has heightened it to another dimension. One of the most common traits that decide a first impression is physical attractiveness. According to research, it is a bias that we have all held at some point. Conventional good looks are generally associated with positive traits.
“It seems that pretty faces ‘prime’ our minds to make us more likely to associate the pretty face with a positive emotion,” says Ingrid Olson, a professor in Penn’s Department of Psychology and co-author of a paper on the first impressions of physical attractiveness. If this is how influential appearance can be in the real world, then a medium like social media, a very visual medium, can substantially intensify this bias.
The halo effect is immediately evident when research suggests that most online influencers are conventionally attractive. It isn’t just limited to influencers; people tend to want to befriend someone with no photos online than those with a photo that is perceived to be unattractive. Such cues taken from just a photograph online can immediately develop halo effects in the viewer’s mind and have a lasting impression.
Interestingly, attractiveness is linked not just to the human being whose account is being scrutinised but also to the account itself. There is a reason why dozens of marketing pundits make a living by telling people how to refine their social media profiles. Cleaner, more polished accounts, are more likely to get a favourable impression than shoddy ones.
Is there enough research on this?
I must admit that it is notably hard to find a research-certified correlation between attractiveness and the digital halo effect. Those who maintain the beauty standards get just as much pushback for looking the way they do. This is not an instance of the “halo effect” but the opposite of it. However, despite the pushback, engagement rises. This means that if a person’s attractiveness or dressing sense affects the viewer’s judgement in a particular way, they do not engage with the post at a higher rate than they would otherwise.
Engagement Metrics and Virtual Signalling
A second halo characteristic trait can be the engagement metric of users. Imagine viewing the profile of someone who posts consistently and has several thousand followers. There is another user who posts consistently and has a scanty following. Though both display a positive trait of persistence, the former is more likely to be seen in a favourable light because several other people interact with their content through likes and comments. This belief lends itself to a secondary psychological concept, the bandwagon effect. Here, people are more likely to adopt certain behaviours when they believe they have mass support or see others doing it. This is because we rely on social proof as a cue to make decisions, and data suggests that over 90% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 trust online social proof reviews.
A third halo bias can be based on philanthropy. Virtue signalling on social media can make a decent impression, especially at first. For example, people filming themselves while aiding a homeless person gets ample traction. A significant example is Mr. Beast; most of his videos reflect him being a humanitarian who does good for the community. His display of charity makes for an excellent immediate impression. What the later perception of this “public” charity is secondary, so long as the first look endows upon him a metaphorical halo.
Interestingly, the exact opposite is equally relevant for each of the points I made. Tanmay Bhatt, a renowned Indian comedian, has articulated this well. He says, “A strong opinion (online) creates the market for the antithesis of that opinion”. Thus, for every I love this!, there is an I hate this! reaction with equal or more aplomb. So, suppose Mr Beast gets recognition for charity. In that case, the woman online who shoots herself making food for the underprivileged will be thrown brickbats for pandering to the audience and chasing views.
Much of what I have written here should be taken with a pinch of salt, for it is my opinion. Given the lack of research on this subject matter, this is not based on extensive data. However, after reading this piece, I am sure you would draw your own conclusions about how the halo and horn effect transpires on social media. You should also take a similar moment to perceive online content rather than just inferring from the social cues I discussed above. It will make your online experience a much better one.
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