International Encyclopedia of Public Policy and Administration - Vol. 2

By Jay M. Shafritz | Go to book overview


HALO AND HORNS EFFECTS . A halo effect, as used in personnel assessment or evaluation, describes the tendency to minimize someone's faults or weaknesses. The horns effect is the tendency to evaluate someone negatively because of their inappropriate behavior.

The halo effect is seeing a person's good points and minimizing or ignoring any bad points. Halo effect also refers to the bias whereby someone is perceived positively by another but for reasons that are unrelated or irrelevant to the standard that should be used in evaluating them, such as friendship, appearance, or personality. Because the positive evaluation is usually based upon attributes unrelated to the evaluation criterion, this phenomenon is also called the "halo error." When discussing the halo effect or error, the implication is quite clear that the evaluator has based his or her assessment upon inappropriate characteristics or behaviors or inaccurate data. An example of the halo effect would be a supervisor who rates an employee as superior or excellent on 20 different traits during a quarterly review. In reality, the employee may deserve a high rating on only 5 of the 20 items, but because the employee did an outstanding job in a presentation before the budget committee only weeks before his or her review, the evaluator "carries over" these positive feelings toward the employee and rates him or her higher than his or her actual performance in other areas unrelated to those wherein the employee actually performed in an excellent or superior manner.

The tendency to ascribe positive characteristics to someone because of irrelevant attributes or behaviors is very old. In the classical work Brutus or Remarks on Eminent Orators, the writer says of Caius Piso, his son-in-law, that "it is scarcely possible to mention anyone who was blessed with a finer capacity." He acknowledges that the reader and he may be inclined to conclude that this praise may be influenced by his bias, saying, "I am rather fearful, indeed, that I should be thought to have been prompted by my affection for him to have given his a greater character than he deserved." However, he assures the reader that the praise was deserved because of Caius' abilities and not because of his affection for his son-in-law.

Equally as old is the opposite of the halo effect, commonly called the "horns effect." The horns effect is the tendency to err in the opposite direction by evaluating someone negatively due to irrelevant or inappropriate characteristics or behaviors. Julius Caesar ( Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2), for example, expressed his dislike of Cassius as a statesman because Cassius was too lean. Caesar tells Marcus Antonius, "Let me have men about me that are fat; sleek-headed men." It was Cassius's personal appearance and not his abilities that influenced Caesar's opinion of Cassius as a politician.

This error in personnel assessment is also known as a "dualistic fallacy" referring to the false assumption by the supervisor that there are two distinct types of employees; good performers and bad performers. It neglects the possibility that an individual employee may have some characteristics of each.


The term "halo effect" has its origins in science. In astronomy and physics, "halo" refers to the phenomenon of light refraction caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere, which causes a circle of colored light to surround the sun or moon.

Artists have historically used a circle of light or halo around the head of a person to represent "holy" persons, saints, or other venerated persons in works of art. This practice by artists is very prevalent in religious artwork. The artist, by placing a visible halo above the person's head, identifies the good character of the person. Angels, for example, are frequently depicted with such halos. Similarly, artists frequently have depicted the devil as having horns upon his head. Thus, the rendering of a person in such a manner has become a symbol of someone who is evil or bad.

The use of the terms "halo effect" and "horns effect" in personnel assessment does not refer to a spiritual evaluation of the person but to the initial perception by the supervisor that the employee is either a good performer or a poor performer.

Halo effect (and horns effect) is also common to psychology, wherein it refers to the global tendency by one person to think of another person as good. The person's motives and behaviors are viewed in the best light. Again, the term implies that the evaluation is biased or based upon irrelevant factors. A person may perceive positive attributes that are not present or may exaggerate the good that does exist. Spouses, family members, and friends may be erroneously evaluated because of the feelings the evaluator has for these people. For example, spouses, lovers, and parents have a strong tendency not to see the "bad" in their partner or child, although their negative attributes or behaviors may be readily apparent to others. Psychologists emphasize that this erroneous perception may lead to inappropriate responses and behavior.

Halo Effect and Personnel Evaluation

Accurate performance appraisal of employees by supervisors is important to the operation of the company or agency and because of the legal consequences for inaccurate performance appraisals. In personnel evaluation, "halo


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