No one escapes prejudices. Whether we recognize it or not, we carry a backpack more or less loaded with prejudices. Prejudices are nothing more than the formation of a judgment on a person, group or event in advance and with little information. Generally this process occurs below the threshold of our consciousness and distorts our perception, causing us to react to the idea we have formed, not to reality. The Horn Effect is one of the worst manifestations of these prejudices.
What is the Horn Effect?
The Horn Effect is a cognitive bias that refers to how a personality trait, behavior or negative attitude obscures the rest of the positive characteristics of a person or group.
It consists in drawing conclusions about a person based only on one trait, which leads to an erroneous generalization. That prejudice will influence how we perceive that person, to the point of clouding our judgment about him and, therefore, determine our attitudes.
The popular imaginary is full of examples of the Horn Effect, like thinking that obese people are lazy or that blondes are dumb. In fact, sometimes prejudices are the result of our experiences but in other cases they’re culturally transmitted prejudices that find a cognitive resonance with our mental patterns.
Unfortunately, once the Horn Effect is set in motion and we form an image of a person or group, it’s very difficult to change it. If we observe something we don’t like about a person, we will continue to grant him negative characteristics judging him from an unfavorable perspective. That will determine our attitude and behavior towards him, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Who discovered the Horn Effect?
It was the year 1920 when the psychologist Edward L.Thorndike found a very curious phenomenon while doing his research in the army. He noticed that when soldiers discovered something good in their superiors, they began automatically to give them positive traits. He called this phenomenon “Halo Effect“.
He discovered that it could happen also the exact opposite: when a superior did something negative he automatically became a detestable person. He called this phenomenon “Horn Effect“.
Later, psychologists Nisbett and Wilson deepened this phenomenon by recruiting 118 students from the University of Michigan. Everyone saw two videos in which appeared the same teacher, in one of them he was friendly while in the other authoritarian and unfriendly.
When they finished watching the videos, the researchers asked the students to describe the physical appearance of the teacher. The students who saw him with a friendly attitude described him as an attractive man while the others claimed that he was an unattractive person. Of course, everyone thought their judgments were objective. They weren’t aware that their perception was mediated by the Horn Effect.
The mechanism of action of the Horn Effect
The Horn Effect is the result of thinking that negative traits are connected to each other. Then our judgment is affected by that negative and unfavorable perception. Involves activating selective attention; that is, we only look at one aspect and draw conclusions from it, forming a negative image of the person.
At its base there’s also a dichotomous thought, kind of “all or nothing” thought, the idea that people are good or bad. If we have a more flexible mind and understand that the positive and the negative coexist, we are less likely to be victims of the Horn Effect.
It’s worth mentioning that stereotypes are normal, they help us dealing with the excess of information in very complex environments and provide us with a very simple behavior guideline to follow. Stereotypes provide us with quick clues to react in new environments with a high degree of uncertainty. They are a kind of mental shortcut allowing us to quickly decide what suits us or is safe.
However, the problem begins when we are not able to go beyond the stereotype and this becomes a prejudice that we use to assign people certain general characteristics according to their skin color, religion, nationality or any other characteristic.
When we prejudge a person carried by the first impression and we don’t give them a “second chance”, we are contributing to consolidate our prejudices. If we assume that a person is unpleasant, it’s likely that we behave roughly with him, so it will become defensive. Thus we validate, without realizing it, our prejudices.
How to avoid the Horn effect?
It’s impossible to avoid completely the prejudices, but we can make sure they don’t influence our behaviors, attitudes and decisions.
1. Develop a more flexible thinking. If you develop an open mentality, understanding that no one is completely bad or good but we all have lights and shadows, you’ll be less prone to suffer the Horn Effect because you won’t have the tendency to connect negative traits with each other.
2. Analyze yourself. Reflect on the stereotypes you drag with you, those that maybe the society inoculated in you. Ask yourself what is true of those beliefs and how much is due to erroneous generalizations that have nothing to do with you. It’s also important that you analyze the prejudices that come from your experiences. Thus you’ll understand that an isolated case can’t represent an entire group.
3. Don’t rush. We live in a liquid world where we don’t take enough time to know and understand the others. That implies that we’re more likely to relate to each other from stereotypes and superficiality. One way to avoid the Horn Effect is to take time to get to know each other. The first impression is important, there is no doubt, but looking beyond is often rewarding because it will allow you understand the complexity and richness that holds each person.
Baumeister, R.F. et. Al. (2001) Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology; 5: 323-370.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E.B. (2001) Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review; 5: 296-320.
Peeters, G. (1991) Evaluative inference in social cognition: The roles of direct vs. indirect evaluation and positive-negative asymmetry. European Journal of Social Psychology, 21, 131-146.
Peeters, G. & Czapinski, J. (1990) Positive-negative asymmetry in evaluations: The distinction between affective and informational negativity effects. European Review of Social Psychology; 1: 33-60.
Taylor, S.E. (1991) Asymmetrical effects of positive and negative events: The mobilization-minimization hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin; 110: 67-85.
Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. (1977) The Halo Effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personalituy and Social Psychology; 35(4): 250-256.