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

Unrecognized Bullying: III

by

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!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Bullying:

Two fingers pointing at each otherIntimidation 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?
A modern roller coaster showing an inverted portion of the tripHow 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.
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The 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.
Bowling pins for ten-pin bowlingSeventeen 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.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressStrategies 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

A wolf pack, probably preparing for a huntComing June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
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.
A meeting of a small team working to resolve a serious matterAnd 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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.