As I was scrolling down my Facebook timeline, I came across an article with the title “Kylie Jenner is now vegan and sharing all her diet changes on Snapchat.”
I thought to myself, who cares?
But then I saw all the engagement on the post, I found it pretty intriguing. She’s famous for her makeup line and fashion style, but why would one care about her diet changes?
Our fascination with the life choices or opinions of celebrities can be explained by a cognitive bias called the halo effect. Using mental shortcuts, our overall impression of a person may guide inferences about other aspects of their character.
We all have a set of assumptions about the relationships among different types of people, traits, and behaviors. This network is referred to as the implicit personality theory.
Implicit personality theory explores the ways in which impressions are formed. The theory suggests that, upon meeting someone, general assumptions are made about the individual’s personality by taking in their most apparent traits. We don’t intentionally form these assumptions; rather, our mind begins to process information about a person through this subconscious reflex.
In effect, our impressions of others are guided by the preconceptions we have about the relationships among different attributes. When we assume that someone has one trait, we infer that he or she has other traits too. For instance, we assume a warm person must be generous and good-natured.
The Halo Effect
The general assumptions we form can be useful shortcuts for our minds, particularly because less energy is needed for information processing. However, relying too much on them can lead to the halo effect— the exaggerated link between a person’s single trait and their personality. For instance, a person with an unpredictable nature may be perceived as dangerous. Or maybe, someone who speaks very slowly may be assumed to be slow-witted.
The generalization can extend to links between certain traits and behaviors. For instance, one would assume that it’s very unlikely for a beloved and sweet celebrity to commit murder. It may also extend to links between physical and psychological attributes. Disliking one’s accent or finding physically attractive, for instance, can affect how we view their character.
In general, celebrities are famous and successful because they are good at something — singing, acting, etc. In this case, it’s reasonable for us to care about their concerts or movies. But what is the mechanism behind the halo effect that explains why we care about things unrelated to their profession, such as their political views, charity work, child-rearing, and dieting?
We tend to take unconscious mental shortcuts in which we generalize a single attribute to judgement or ratings of unrelated factors. We are fascinated by a celebrity’s every single move because we assume that if they are good in one domain, they must excel in all areas.
A study by Thorndike (1920) found that commanding officers rated their soldiers either good across the board or bad about everything. Rarely did they rate some good attributes and some bad ones. It’s easier for our minds to process in a black-and-white manner because there’s less conscious information-processing occurring.
The Halo Effect in Action: Advertising
Well-aware of this cognitive bias, brands and advertising companies have exploited the halo effect by resorting to celebrity endorsements to promote products. With the ease of social transmission through social media or billboards, product promotion has never been easier.
Celebrities contribute to a huge amount of sales even when the products they promote have nothing to do with their profession. There is no rational reason why we should trust a basketball player’s opinion on food or sunglasses, but we still buy the product regardless.
You ask why? When a celebrity endorses a particular item, our positive evaluations of the celebrity can spread to the perceptions of the product itself. Celebrity endorsement trades on our subconscious assumption that if someone is good at doing a particular thing, like singing or acting, they will also have a sound judgement when it comes to choosing breakfast cereal or cars.
When you get someone as attractive as David Beckham to advertise your underwear company, it’s very likely that a person will associate attractiveness to the product — your underwear brand.
The Prestige Bias
Another reason why we watch a celebrity’s every move, such as their diet changes or style, is because we’re naturally attuned to models and we choose whom we want to imitate based on prestige.
Certain individuals tend to have more presence; you look at what they do and how they do it. You then imitate their behavior because they have prestige. We’re obsessed with celebrities because we assume we can become as prestigious as they are. When we buy products they endorsed or wore, we feel like we are so close to achieving the celebrity status and it doesn’t require someone to be that special.
We’re particular to whom we choose to imitate; in other words, we have a prestige bias because we tend to seek others who have skills and are respected by others. We try to imitate them because we think if someone is successful, they must have done something to get that success. You assume that doing whatever they are doing is going to translate to yourself.
The product’s association with the celebrity produces an impression so strong that we will remember the product even if we know nothing else about it. That’s precisely why we choose to buy the product.
In order for the impression to be good, the chosen celebrities are typically physically attractive and inoffensive. A consumer would not want to buy a product associated with a celebrity become embroiled in embarrassing scandals. They would rather believe that good things will rub off the product.
Cognitive biases can play a huge role in the way celebrities influence our behavior. Because celebrities are generally successful, prestigious, and reputable, we tend to think that if we do or buy something associated with this particular celebrity, we are one step closer to becoming as successful, prestigious, and reputable as they are.
Cognitive biases are generally adaptive, particularly because mental shortcuts make it easier for us to categorize information and consume less energy on information processing.
However, if taken too far, these cognitive biases can lead to stereotypes. For instance, you make general assumptions regarding a person based on their race, gender, or age. Or worse, you may fall victim to the advertisers who are using your biases to their advantage.
Although cognitive biases, like the halo effect, are unconscious, their impact can be reduced by taking the time to slow down your thought process and increase awareness of the process.