Your health in the halo

How advertising and reputation shape decisions you think you're making with your health in mind


In September, Apple released a new phone to the world, organic labels are flying off the shelves, and fitness industry concepts growth is better than ever. What separates the new iPhone, organic food and fitness by one degree? According to social psychology, it may be the Halo Effect — a term created in the 1920s by learning theorist Edward Thorndike.

The Halo Effect is a judgmental process in which our perception of one trait influences our view of something in its entirety. For example, let’s say our first impression of someone is that they are attractive. According to Thorndike, with just that information, we project a positive, assumptive halo about all of their attributes. Because someone looks good, we assume they are also smart, creative, more interesting, fun or more generous than someone with average looks. If someone has a good physique, we assume they have leadership qualities. If your friend’s mother bakes great chocolate chip cookies, her aromatic halo leads you to assume that she can cook everything else just as well (until the meatloaf hits the table). Happy with your iPod? It is likely you will consider purchasing an iPad or other Apple product.

The fitness world has its share of halos as well. Some of the most successful companies in the fitness industry today are spin bike concepts. The New York Times reported in July that one of the fast-growing spin fitness companies, SoulCycle, has expanded to 700 employees while developing into a lifestyle brand.

The man behind the commercial success of spinning is former champion cyclist turned fitness guru Jonathan Goldberg. To earn his halo in the world of exercise and fitness, “Johnny G” invented the spin bike, then pioneered commercial spin classes in the late 1980s. His motivation for indoor cycling came after being hit by a car while riding at night to train for a race. He wanted a safer way to ride himself into shape. In 2004, Goldberg came down with a virus that damaged his heart and kept him from leg cycling at all, reports the American Council on Exercise. Employing his Tony Stark skills again to stay ahead of the game, Goldberg revved up the standard-issue Upper Body Ergometer, or arm bike. He did this by merging his spin technology with the Upper Body Ergometer, a staple in rehab centers for the handicapped and cardiac recovery, but relatively unknown to average fitness enthusiasts.

He named the resulting invention a Krankcycle. Goldberg created a highly effective anaerobic training tool that pushes cardio through the arms rather than through the legs. This concept was virtually unknown before the Krankcycle. Almost every piece of cardio training equipment emphasizes the legs, with nothing using the arms as the primary drive train.

Launching Krankcycle should have succeeded solely on the merits of its effectiveness, but psychology doesn’t work that way. We live in a world where thousands of companies with great ideas are designing viral videos or spending millions on ad campaigns to get even a shimmer of the halo enjoyed by companies like Nike, Under Armour and Precor. The success of the Krankcycle rides a wave of acceptance from its inception largely because of the Goldberg halo.

Apple may just be the most astute at intentionally formulating the halo phenomenon around its products.

“When Apple hosted its Worldwide Developers Conference last month, it announced that over 600 million iOS devices have been sold since the iPhone’s inception,” wrote Motley Fool contributor Steve Heller. “This gives the company a potentially enormous base of repeat iCustomers.”

That would be 600 million halos and counting from the light show coming off of Apple’s fingertips. At least according to Apple users.

How do organic foods fit into this consumer picture? Researchers at Cornell University Food Sciences conducted research to determine if organic labels held “halo” power over consumers vs. non-organic labels. In a simple setup, they asked participants to rate flavor and estimate calories for food labeled “organic” vs. “regular.” They actually contained the exact same product.

The lead author of the experiment, Wan-chen Jenny Lee, told, “Even though these foods were all the same, the ‘organic’ label greatly influenced people’s perceptions. The cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories when labeled ‘organic,’ and people were willing to pay up to 23.4 percent more for them. The nutritional aspects of these foods were also greatly biased by the health halo effect. The ‘organic’ cookies and yogurt were said to taste ‘lower in fat’ than the ‘regular’ variety, and the ‘organic’ cookies and chips were thought to be more nutritious!”

However, research by Cornell assistant professor of communication Jonathan Schuldt, discussed online in the Cornell Chronicle, contradicts a generalized halo phenomenon, at least when it comes to organic foods. This also may apply to other consumer goods like fitness products and smartphones. His research focused in more detail on the personal values of market-activated consumers.

Schuldt specifically looked for a connection between individuals with pro-environment attitudes and potentially negative responses to organic labeling. Results from the study indicate subjects with pro-environment sentiment perceived a particular organic product to actually be less beneficial compared to the “regular” option.

In this study, a label that used the word “organic” but also included words such as “formula,” “scientists” and “industry” was viewed as less desirable than the same label without the word “organic” by pro-environmental people. One explanation could be that anti-industry sentiment outweighed the pro-organic sentiment.

One way to understand this study is to ask: If a tree falls in the forest in front of 10 different people, do they all report the same sound? Likely not. The bias and impressions of each observer dictates a halo effect or the opposite — a lack of association regarding the quality of a product or the quality of sound a tree makes hitting the deck. Someone who enjoys collisions might describe it as exquisite, whereas someone with a fear of colliding objects would describe it as horrifying.

Just because you label a food organic, launch a new phone or fitness product doesn’t mean that everyone will follow the halo beacon and jump on board with positive associations. Attempting to implement positive associations may work against the product due to simple built up human responses. For example, many people have the bias that if food is healthy for them it probably doesn’t taste as good as something that is unhealthy. Would you rather have a brussel sprout burger or a chocolate chip cookie?