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Your horns and halos bias at work

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here


I've said it before and I'll say it again - our brains are amazingly wonderful, but very petty things. 🧠

I could tell you one or two things about someone and you'll make a ton of assumptions and generalisations about them. Our brain likes putting people into boxes like this - and it leads to biased thinking, stereotyping and group attribution error.

Biases help our brains operate. The bias isn't the problem - it's human. The problem comes when our biases lead certain people, ideas and environments to be favoured - and other people, ideas and environments to be disadvantaged or excluded.

What are the horns and halos biases?

😇😈Today we're looking at the horns and halos biases - a cognitive bias that causes you to allow one trait, either good (halo) or bad (horn), to overshadow other traits, behaviours, actions, or beliefs.” (Kennon, 2011).

When we see one great thing about a person, and we let the halo glow of that thing affect our opinions of everything else about that person. The Horns effect is the direct opposite of the Halo effect. The Horns effect is when we see one bad thing about a person, and we let it cloud our opinions of their other attributes.

Back to us being petty -- just knowing (or assuming) one thing about someone can overshadow other traits, behaviours, beliefs and actions. It can lead you to be biased towards or against them, their ideas and situations they might find themselves in.

😇 The Halo bias 😇

Our first impression of somebody leads us to have a biased positive or negative opinion of their work or company. A positive impression of somebody leads us to overlook their negative characteristics or treat them more favourably than others.

The term halo effect was coined in 1920 by American psychologist Edward Thorndike who observed how military leaders readily assumed that “conventionally attractive” people would also be competent and successful. This beauty premium didn't stay in the 1920 US military.

According to numerous studies, attractive people are more likely to get hired, receive better evaluations and get paid more. The halo effect also might explain why the majority of male CEOs are over 6'1" - even though the majority of men are not. It's laughable to think that because someone is good looking (or tall), their work must be good too. But yet, that's how our brains work.

The halo-effect can surface because of affinity bias as well. Affinity bias is the 'similar-to-me' effect which causes us to be positively biased towards people who are like us. When you find out someone went to the same school as you or visited the same amazing holiday destination or has the same fashion taste as you - these can all provide a halo effect - causing you to ignore their more problematic behaviours.

If someone speaks and presents well, you might overlook their inattention to detail or the fact that they're always late.

People shining with halos at work might get more development opportunities, better performance ratings and have a better chance at moving up in their careers. Which is great for them but unfair and inequitable for others.

😈 The Horn bias 😈

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the horn bias. The Horns bias happens when one bad thing about a person clouds our opinions of their other attributes.

Let's go back to appearance. One study found that the job performance of overweight people was graded more negatively and that overweight job candidates were less preferred by recruiters and hiring managers.

Boy, oh boy - do I let some horns get in my way! In 2020 I found out two good friends are anti-vax. Immediately I wanted to dismiss years of friendship because of their position on the Covid vaccine.

I actually got off of Facebook and Instagram because I was completely reforming my opinions about people I knew and loved based on one fact: who they were planning to vote for in the 2016 USA presidential election (or what hat they were wearing in their profile photo). Seems awfully silly - and that type of hairline, horns-based judgement probably deserves its own deep dive blog.

At work someone might appear scruffy or too casual, which can shift your perception of their performance. They might have been late to a meeting the first time you met them, which has caused a stubborn horn to grow.

Actions we can take

  1. Be aware this is happening: As always, awareness is the first step. Now that you've been reminded how much one facet of someone can skew your view of them, their ideas and situations they're in - you're ready to take the next steps.

  2. Expose yourself more to the person: OK wait - please don't expose your genitals. Take your mind out of the gutter and allow me to rephrase: Spend more time with the person who is on the receiving end of your horns bias. The more we can know them and connect with them, the greater potential for the horn to seem like more of a small lump.

  3. Use the wisdom of the crowd: The more diverse the group reviewing, evalauating and providing feedback the better the feedback usually is. It can ensure one person's halos and horns biases are not overriding their judgement.

  4. Have consistent scoring criteria: Whether it's during recruitment or around your operational KPIs, be clear and consistent about what people are expected to know and do in the role. Evaluate the person against the criteria. You're not scoring the person, you're scoring the work.

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