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The Halo- Effect of a Racially Specific Name

Ashley Alston

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro


The Halo Effect is a phenomena where global evaluations influence the evaluations of individual attributes of a person. This effect has been shown present when physical attractiveness or photographs are present. However, the effect has not yet been demonstrated with the use of only a name; specifically a racially specific name. This experiment predicted that a racially specific African American name would have a significantly more negative connotation that a racially specific Caucasian name. Also, that when used in a setting that gives a colder guise as opposed to a warmer guise, the African American name would be rated more negatively. Results did support this hypothesis, revealing a main effect for name where the Caucasian name was rated more positively. A main effect for guise was revealed, with more positively rated attributes in the warm guise condition. A marginally significant interaction between name and guise was revealed.

The Halo-Effect of a Racially Specific Name

Perceptual judgments are made every day whether individuals are aware of it or not. Many times, people make such judgments or evaluations about often specific attributes of others based on a local, cultural, or even global evaluations or standards already set forth or assumed. For instance, one can walk down the street and make a judgment about someone else by placing certain attributes or characteristics onto that particular person even though they may have never had a conversation with them, or know much about them personally. In various situations such as reviewing job applications, college applications, grade reports on an individual basis in school settings, or even rating performance or quality of work, where more personal acquaintance of an individual may not be likely or not possible, sometimes these global evaluations can influence our perceptual judgments on how we in turn evaluate others, and take form in a phenomenon known as the Halo Effect.

A study on the Halo Effect and evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments, (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), described this phenomenon as occurring when a global evaluation has an influence on how one evaluates the individual attributes of a person. Knowing the extent to which this occurs in our daily lives can be of great importance, especially when such perceptual judgments about other people are made so frequently; often times being the determining factors about significant dealings in one’s life such as job positions, promotions, acceptance into colleges, recommendations, or an array of other pertinent circumstances.

Expectations based on one’s physical attractiveness come into play during school settings, the college application process, or even on a job interview. In a study on task evaluation as a function of the performer’s physical attractiveness, Landy and Sigall 1974, examined the effect of physical attractiveness on performance evaluation. An attempt was made to assess to what extent physical attractiveness effects performance evaluation while controlling the quality of the task being evaluated and the evaluator's exposure to the performer. Participants were given an essay to read, one being rated a poor essay or one being rated a good essay, while either an attractive, unattractive, or no photograph of the author of the essay was attached. Results showed that when the essay was perceived to be of good quality, there was no significant difference between whether the reader/subject thought the writer was attractive or unattractive. However, when the essay was perceived of poor quality, if the writer of the essay was rated as more attractive, the quality of the essay was rated as higher, even though it was of the poor condition. This demonstrates that physical attractiveness of an individual performing a task does affect the way in which people evaluate both the performance and the performer (writer), even when the task performance being evaluated is completely unrelated to the actual physical attractiveness of the performer (writer).

Another similar study on the influence of children's physical attractiveness on teacher’s expectations, addressed the association between children’s physical attractiveness and teacher’s judgments of leadership, confidence, popularity, academic brightness, and sociability, (Kenealy, Frude, & Shaw, 1988). The physical attractiveness of the children was determined with two photographs, rated by five adults. Judges then rated each picture and the children’s teachers also rated the children on a seven point scales of physical attractiveness and five personality characteristics: consisting of whether the child was a leader, confident, popular, academically bright, and sociable. Results showed a relationship between the two variables in that the teacher’s rating of attractiveness correlated with their judgments of children’s leadership, confidence, popularity, academic brightness, and sociability. Results showed some significant tendencies of teachers to judge attractive students as more sociable, more popular, more academically bright, more confident, and more likely to be leaders than unattractive students.

Seemingly to contradict the previously noted articles, a study on preinterview biases: The impact of race, physical attractiveness, and sales job type on preinterview impressions of sales job applicants, ( Marshall, Stamps, & Moore, 1998) showed different results in how biases affect our judgments, based on the application process for a sales job. Biases were determined by how the participants (281 managers and executives drawn from business programs at 7 different universities) rated applicants on six items: qualified, hire ability, salary, training, successful, and promoted, which were asked for each of the three conditions manipulated (race, physical attractiveness, and sales job type). The levels of the independent variables were for race, whether the applicant was black or white. With physical attractiveness, a within subjects design was used. For physical attractiveness, whether the applicant was attractive or unattractive within each race, white or black. For the sales job type, the levels were either an outside sales job or an inside sales job.

Results showed that many of the preconceived notions about preinterview biases are false, especially when they assume that white managers tend to be biases against blacks. The reverse was actually shown in that the black subjects/ managers tended to be more favorable and biased to the applicants with whom they could identify with, the black applicants. As far as physical attractiveness and sales job type, there was no difference in either of these independent variables and no difference in how the subjects of either race viewed these attributes. This would suggest that physical attractiveness and job type, (based on race and physical attractiveness), do not play a part in preinterview biases. As long as the applicants are qualified, these factors do not appear to matter.

Based on previous research, there seems to be a clear relationship and effect of physical attractiveness and the way people expect an individual to perform, when the qualifications are both low, in which case physical attractiveness wins out over the unattractive individual in ratings. This appears to also be true is the person’s actual abilities are unknown, whereas more personal factors that the rater can identify with, such as race place a more important role in how performance is rated or how an individual is judged. Not only does physical appearance affect the way in which other people react to a person, race can affect these judgments significantly as more historical and personal context can be attached to someone’s race as opposed to their physical attractiveness. Both factors can affect the way that people react to that person's accomplishments, and what they expect that person to accomplish.

Although the previously noted studies address the scope of essentially the Halo Effect taking place in situations where global evaluations of physical attractiveness are influencing one’s perceptions about an individual’s attributes and characteristics, (and also how race can play a more personal role in such an effect), none of these studies examined how or if a simple name can have the same Halo Effect. In many of the aforementioned studies, a visual cue (photograph, video, etc.) in relation to an individual was presented eliciting participants to form a global evaluation of the said individual that could significantly affect later evaluated characteristics. However, in many “real-world” instances visual cues are not presented; names are (resumes, college applications, school testing, etc.).

Thus, the proposed study will examine the degree to which a racially charged name, can elicit a global evaluation, as well as the degree to which said racially charged name can elicit a specific evaluation capable of affecting the perception of specified personality dimensions. We predict two hypotheses. First, that when made salient, a racially specific name, functioning as a global evaluation, will have a significant effect on the perception and judgment of individual characteristics. We predict that the racially specific African American name will have more significant negative connotation than the racially specific Caucasian name. Second, that the use of a description, good or bad, should have a significant effect on how one perceives the ability of the person. We predict that the bad day cold guise will give a more significant result for the racially specific African American name and when using the racially specific Caucasian name in the bad day cold guise there will be a less negative result than for the black name.



Twenty-four (total n=24) University of North Carolina at Greensboro undergraduate psychology majors participated in this experiment. Questionnaires were administered to the twenty-four participants on four separate days, with varying levels of participant attendance (day1 n= 6, day2 n= 8, day3 n=6, day4 n=4).


The materials included a brief short story, followed by a 36-item questionnaire consisting of questions that concern the personality attributes of the aforementioned character in the short story.


We created a 2 X 2 factoral design. The name of the student character presented within the average day account (short story), one name eliciting an individual of African American ethnicity and one name eliciting an individual of Caucasian ethnicity, and the average day account itself, that of a good day account and that of a bad day account. The dependent variables, the perceptual judgment, were measured via the responses of participants on the provided questionnaire utilizing a Likert scale ranging from 1 (Very Unlikely) to 7 (Very Likely). The UNCG undergraduate psychology majors signed up to participate in the given experiment on a total of four days, and on each day, a different condition of this experiment was given. The conditions were given to the groups randomly using a number generator. The racially specific names used in the average day accounts/ shorts stories, (good or bad), were derived from the US Census 2000, on the Demographic aspects of Surnames, to choose a last name for these fictional characters, and we used the Social Security Administration’s website for 2009 for popular baby names by decade to choose the first names. The names we chose were Emily Smith for the racially specific Caucasian name, and Ebony Jackson for the racially specific African American name. The stories for each guise or day were the same, in that for the “warm guise good day”, the character had a good day at school, arrived early, met with a teacher, received a test back with a grade in which she was pleased, and helped her fellow classmates. The “cold guise bad day” story had the character waking up late, arriving late to school, not being satisfied with her grade on her test, and keeping to herself not wanting to do her homework when she returns home. Both characters, Emily and Ebony were the same, in that they were juniors in high school, and no other personal information was given about the characters. The only differences between the characters were their names and the events in the particular day, whether good or bad.


Participants received either an Emily- warm guise good day story, or an Emily- cold guise bad day story, or the same story using a different name, Ebony Jackson, (this represents our four conditions). Each story had attached to it the questionnaire with questions regarding individual personality attributes, and the questions asked the participants to rate “how likely is it that the character, (either Emily Smith or Ebony Jackson), is lazy, or any other various measure to access personality attributes. Participants read the stories and answered the questions accordingly.


A 2 (name: African American, Caucasian) X 2 (guise: warm, cold) between subjects ANOVA was performed on the overall traits, determined by ratings on questionnaires assessing positive and negative personality attributes completed by the participants. A main effect for name, was shown in that the Caucasian name generally rated as more positive (M = .868, SD = .663), which differed with marginal significance from that African American name, (M = .480, SD = 1. 238), F (1, 20) = 2.73, p<.15. A main effect for guise was also shown, where the warm guise (M = 1.31, SD = .613) demonstrated a higher rating of positive attributes, which differed significantly from that of the cold guise (M = -.293, SD = .739), F (1, 20) = 33.24, p<.001. Furthermore, a marginally significant interaction between name and guise was shown, F (1, 20) = 3.71, p < .15. The participants who read the cold guise story generally rated the attributes of the African American character (M = -.67, SD = .71) rated the character significantly more negatively and less positively than the Caucasian character (M = .27, SD= .31).


Results supported our main hypothesis that a racially specific African American name would generate a more significantly negative connotation than the racially specific Caucasian name, as did results support our hypothesis that within the cold guise condition, the racially specific African American name would generate a more significantly negative connotation that the racially specific Caucasian name. This would suggest that the effect of a name, specifically a racially specific name, does play a part in how people assess others, specifically judging their personality attributes. Also, it was shown that when presented with a warm guise situation or story, participants rated positive attributes higher than those of negative attributes, regardless of presented name. The results of this study indicate that a racially specific name and not just visual stimuli, does indeed have the ability to elicit the halo-effect. Thus, a global evaluation is capable of affecting the further perceptual judgment of personality attributes which may be considerably unrelated to the name or presented information.

There were many limitations to this study, in that first and foremost, we had an extremely low number of participants. With a total of 24, unevenly distributed throughout the four conditions, a true effect of whether the independent variables had an effect of our dependent variables cannot be truly assessed, especially to draw a concrete conclusion on whether the Halo effect truly played a part in how people’s perceptual judgments affected the way they rate African American names versus Caucasian names. Also, we were limited to only using a 2 X 2 factoral design, and we could not test for other biases that may come into play using other races, such as Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, etc. future research could attempt this experiment and have larger numbers of participants to better reveal an effect, and also increase the levels of the independent variable for race to better demonstrate whether the Halo Effect will be evident with the use of racially specific names.

This research is important because many times, people are judged based on their qualifications, or even for the type of person they are believed to be, without having a face or photo attached to their names on paper. This occurs when submitting a resume, grade reports, job applications, and college applications. Many times the one making the judgments doesn’t have the opportunity to meet with the person personally, and the qualification between to prospective employees or students, may be similar. So knowing what or if any personal or an influence of global evaluations of a specific quality or in this case, race, affects the way those judgments are made, is of great and very pertinent importance.


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Landy, D., & Sigall, H. (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer's physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(3), 299-304

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Nisbett, R.E., & Wilson, T.D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(4), 250-256.

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Figure 1

Average Differential Means Scores by Name and Guise


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