Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 36;   September 14, 2022: Unrecognized Bullying: III

Unrecognized Bullying: III


Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect are two of these biases.
The Yin and Yang symbol with white representing Yang and black representing Yin

The Yin and Yang symbol with white representing Yang and black representing Yin. The symbol represents the intertwining of all dualities of nature. The Halo Effect and the Horn Effect might be intertwined manifestations of one phenomenon — our attributing to a thing the value we place on one single attribute of that thing.

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 phenomenon
of 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.

Last words

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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Online Ethics  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs 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!


[Brenner 2012]
Richard Brenner. "The Halo Effect," Point Lookout blog, March 21, 2012. Available here. Back
[Thorndike 1920]
Edward L. Thorndike. "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings," Journal of Applied Psychology 4:1 (1920), 25-29. doi:10.1037/h0071663. Available here. Retrieved 28 April 2021. Back
[Forgas 2007]
Joseph P. Forgas and Simon M. Laham "Halo Effect," in Baumeister and Vohs, ed., Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Scott 2013]
Brent A Scott and Timothy A. Judge. "Beauty, personality, and affect as antecedents of counterproductive work behavior receipt." Human Performance 26:2 (2013). 93-113. Available here. Retrieved 27 August 2022. Back

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Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

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Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (Democrat of Wisconsin)Confronting the Workplace Bully: II
When bullied, one option is to fight back, but many don't, because they fear the consequences. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
Palm trees blowing in a hurricaneDealing with Rapid-Fire Attacks
When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
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Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events?

See also Workplace Bullying and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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