Tl;dr: The Horn and Halo Effects are cognitive biases where our first impression influences our decision making and how we feel about someone. This impression can be based on a single characteristic that is not actually relevant, such as their race, gender identity, or even how attractive we find someone. To break this cycle, we need to slow down, look for bias, and look for supporting or refuting evidence for our first impressions.
Ever judged someone based on a first impression? We have all been told how important first impressions are, and in many ways that’s true. Everyone makes snap judgments based on their own experiences, ideals, prejudices, and cultural backgrounds. These mental shortcuts can help us navigate a world with tons of information, limited time, and limited attention. When we don’t have enough information, our brains fill in a story for us. However, sometimes these mental tricks can result in cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are errors in thinking that influence our decisions and judgments.
The Halo and Horn Effects are an example of a cognitive bias we are all subject to. They are forms of stereotyping. Imagine someone really attractive walks into the room. Maybe they are dressed nicely, wearing your favorite color, and reading your favorite book. You might be thinking “That person is awesome! They must be smart, funny, and cool just like me!” So you walk up, say hi, and quickly discover they are rude, have a terrible sense of humor, and have bad breath. This would be an example of the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is when we notice a trait we define as good, like dressing well or loving purple, and assume that they have other positive qualities, like intelligence or integrity. This is a powerful trick our brains play on us and influences us every day. Its why advertisers use celebrities to sell products. There is no reason to believe that Dolly Parton knows anything about laxatives, but you better believe I’m gonna buy Dolly brand stool softeners.
The Horn Effect is the opposite. This is when we assume that when someone has one characteristic we find unfavorable, they must have other negative traits. For example, let’s say someone wears a plaid shirt and striped pants (generally a bad combo). We might then assume they are incompetent at work or socially inept. We tell a story about them without knowing the important information to make those judgments. When we are stuck in the Horn Effect, we also may minimize positive things about that person.
Horn and Halo effects have very real impacts on our lives every day. It impacts who is hired for a job, who we hang out with, the quality of our healthcare, and who we trust for information. So how do we de-bias and minimize the effects of the Horn and Halo? First, we need to slow down. We are more prone to cognitive bias when we are thinking quickly or are in emotionally charged situations. Take a beat and ask the question, “Why do I think that about this person?” Stopping to examine why we feel some way or other about someone can help us spotlight when we have a bias. It is also helpful to gather more information. What have they said or done that supports my assumption or refutes it? Do other people agree with me or am I all alone in thinking this?
Taking time to address our cognitive biases can help us make better decisions, improve our relationships, and ward us against misinformation.
Stay safe. Stay well. Watch out for cognitive bias!
Those Nerdy Girls
Web MD: What Is the Halo Effect?
Science ABC: What Is The Halo And Horn Effect?