Many of us are improving our ability to recognize workplace bullying. That's a good thing, because recognition is a necessary prerequisite for control, correction, and deterrence. But there are limits to how effective we can be at recognizing bullying behavior. Contributing to those limits, as I noted in a previous post, are members of a set of phenomena called cognitive biases.
Briefly, a cognitive bias is a pattern of thinking that leads us to make systematic errors that we would not make if we were engaged in evidence-based critical thinking. These aren't "mistakes" in the sense of, say, sloppy thinking. Our brains work the way they do because of the complexity of the tasks they must complete. Cognitive biases improve throughput with "acceptable" error rates in many circumstances.
A variety The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect
might be intertwined manifestations
of one phenomenonof cognitive biases prevent targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators from perceiving bullying behavior as bullying. In this post, I explore the effects of two particular closely related cognitive biases: the Halo Effect and the Horn Effect.
The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect
The Halo Effect causes our evaluation of people, concepts, or objects to be influenced by our perceptions of one attractive or positive attribute of those people, concepts, or objects. [Brenner 2012] It was first identified in 1920 by Edward Thorndike, who was studying how military officers evaluated their subordinates. [Thorndike 1920] He found that high ratings in one attribute tended to be correlated with high ratings in other seemingly unrelated attributes. But the effect is universal, extending beyond military performance evaluation. In modern experiments, for example, researchers have demonstrated that people tend to judge physically attractive people as possessing more socially desirable personality traits than do less physically attractive people.
Just as the Halo Effect pertains to desirable attributes, the Horn Effect pertains to undesirable attributes. In the context of performance reviews, researchers have demonstrated that when evaluators perceive in subordinates attributes that they regard as negative, those evaluators tend to assess more negatively the unrelated attributes of those subordinates. This effect is known as the Horn Effect. [Forgas 2007]
Effects on targets
Persons who lack confidence about their potential to perform well at work, or who otherwise assess themselves as deficient, can become targets of bullying without recognizing what is happening. Because of the Horn Effect, their negative self-assessment can lead them to believe that the abuse they experience is justified. Their stance can be expressed as, "I deserved that." They can adopt and hold this view even though abuse in the form of bullying is never justified.
Likewise, consider targets who assess their bullies as capable high performers, as they might if their bullies are their supervisors. Because of the Halo Effect, these targets are more likely to assess their abusers' behavior as correct and consistent with organizational policy. Their stance can be expressed as, "My boss is probably right because my boss is my boss."
Effects on bystanders
The Halo Effect has a different impact on bystanders who directly witness the bullying, or who trust the incident reports they receive from others. Those who regard the bully as a positive, powerful leader, based on professional accomplishments, quite naturally tend to interpret the incident as anything but bullying. To them, the target must have done something to cause the incident.
Curiously, the Horn Effect works the same way, though on a different group of bystanders. Bystanders who hold the target in low regard reach the same conclusion: the target must have done something to cause the incident.
Both groups conclude that bullying didn't occur, despite having witnessed it.
Effects on perpetrators
Perpetrators — those engaged in bullying — are subject to the Horn Effect, as are we all. For example, a perpetrator in search of a target might be inclined to favor targets who are socially isolated. The usual interpretation of this inclination is that perpetrators attack those who are unlikely to have defenders. Research does indicate that the unattractive are more likely to become targets of bullying. [Scott 2013] But the Horn Effect offers another possible explanation. It is that social isolation can be an indicator of personal weakness. If so, socially isolated targets would be attractive to perpetrators favoring targets who would be unlikely to counterattack.
The Halo Effect has a different impact on perpetrators. For example, consider a physically attractive potential target in the perpetrator's field of operation. The Halo Effect might be expected to cause the perpetrator to experience positive feelings toward the potential target. Those feelings might overcome the perpetrator's compulsion to engage in bullying.
Effects on supervisors of perpetrators
Supervisors of perpetrators might be perpetrators themselves, and if they are, both the Halo Effect and the Horn Effect can play roles in determining their behavior with respect to their own bullying. But with regard to supervising another perpetrator, these two effects can also be in play.
One possible point for these two effects to enter the scene is through the supervisor's vicarious identification with the subordinate's bullying. For example, consider what might happen if the supervisor is called upon to intervene in the subordinate's bullying of someone the supervisor regards as physically attractive. The Halo Effect might influence the supervisor's response. And if the supervisor regards the perpetrator's target as unattractive, one might expect the Horn Effect to play a role. Multiple possibilities arise, given the complexity of the situation, which involves the supervisor, the perpetrator, and the target.
The attributes of the target do not cause the perpetrator's bullying. The proximate cause lies entirely within the perpetrator. But the perpetrator's perceptions of the target do influence the perpetrator's behavior, for which the perpetrator is fully accountable. First in this series Top Next Issue
Is a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!
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More articles on Workplace Bullying:
- Intimidation Tactics: Touching
- Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to
intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted,
what can you do?
- How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: II
- Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time are intuitive
users of Boyd's OODA model. Here's Part II of an exploration of how bullies use the model.
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- Seventeen Guidelines About Workplace Bullying
- Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because
our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember
in the moment.
- Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal
abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers
rely on to avoid disciplinary action.
See also Workplace Bullying and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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