How “The Horns Effect” Plays a Part in Bullying


The Horns Effect (or Reverse Halo Effect) – is the opposite of the Halo Effect. It’s a form of bias that causes people’s perception of a person to be negative based on a single negative trait.

No one’s perfect, and everyone has negative traits. The Horns Effect is an example of how one negative trait over-shadows the positive characteristics of a person- how negative ratings of one quality can easily cross over to judgments of other attributes.

For example, here’s a beautiful and attractive woman. She works hard, has a good heart, and has talent in singing and playing the guitar. Although the woman is kind-hearted, is a knockout in looks and has superior skill in music, if people perceive her as stupid, they may also view her as unattractive and untalented. All it takes is an unfavorable rating of one characteristic to influence lower scores of other qualities.

What happens is that people jump to conclusions about a person too quickly based only on one imperfection and end up wrongly judging the individual.

Other examples of The Horns Effect are when people judge a particular group based on the behavior of a few bad apples- they think that overweight people are lazy and have no willpower, that blondes are dumb, that blacks are thugs, that whites are racist, and that poor people are bums. You get the picture.

The problem is that we see something we don’t like about a person or a particular member of a group, then go on judging them from our own unfavorable view, which only determines our attitude and behavior toward them, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This effect causes us to think bad traits are connected to all other characteristics.

This is what happens when a person is bullied for so long and finally gets fed up and reacts out of emotion. They’re seen as overreacting, overly sensitive, or downright crazy and unhinged.

The Horns Effect causes people to have “selective attention.” They look at one undesirable trait and form an opinion of the whole person based on that one single characteristic. It’s an “all-or-nothing” mentality- black or white thinking with no room for the grey. It’s the idea that people are either good or bad and nothing in between. Bullies and their followers refuse to realize that positive and negative coexist.

This is only a stereotype, and bullies and their sheep are either unable to or refuse to go beyond that stereotype, which then becomes a prejudice against the target. They judge the target based only on their first impression they got from her and refuse to give her a “second chance.” Which only consolidates the bias. They continue to assume the person is bad or evil and treat them harshly or unfairly.

For example, if something comes up missing, people will automatically look at the target and presume him to be the thief who took it.

The victim will then become defensive (as every action produces a reaction).

Here’s another example: When things go wrong, people tend to cut everyone else- anyone else, except the target, some slack and believe that things were only out of their control or if they were within their control, pass it off that “everyone makes mistakes.”

With the target, on the other hand, people will only view that person’s every action with distrust and believe the person caused the mishap deliberately or had an agenda. Sadly, people do this subconsciously.

If anyone else is late for class or work, people will only think, “Oh, traffic must have been backed up” or “So-and-so must’ve had a stressful morning.”

On the other hand, if the target, whom they dislike, does the same thing, people will only think, “As usual, the idiot can’t get their shit together” or “she’s just hell-bent on bending the rules, isn’t she?” “She has no respect for authority.”

This is known as confirmation bias, where we search for and “find” evidence that proves our opinions of the unfortunate target to be accurate, and discount or rationalize proof that doesn’t support our views. People then judge everything the target does.

Understand that people have a psychological need to “be right” about a person. It’s what leads bystanders and others around the target to assume that any lies, rumors, and gossip about them is true, despite a complete lack of evidence.

But if the person is anyone other than the victim, people won’t believe any accusation of wrongdoing even if there’s a mountain of evidence to back it up.

The Horns Effect leads teachers and supervisors to disqualify people who are well-deserving of and qualified for awards and select someone who isn’t. And people will punish the target for a particular behavior while overlooking the same behavior in anyone else base on their personal dislike, disrespect and hatred of the target.

Also, others won’t recognize any improvement or positive change in the target and if they do, they won’t believe it will last. They’ll only see it as, “Oh, she’s just on her best behavior to impress others and get them off her tail. She’ll be back to her bitch-self soon enough. Just give her time.”

At the same time, people may not see poor and unacceptable behavior in someone other than the target. With anyone else, people will say, “Oh, so-and-so would never have done that! That sounds like something (the target’s name) would do!”

Or people will make excuses for someone else. “I’m sure Becky didn’t mean to do XYZ.” Or “Maybe Rhonda is just going through some things and that’s why she snapped and hit Christy with a baseball bat.”

The Horns Effect is the root of discrimination and prejudice just like the Halo Effect is the root of favoritism and partiality.

(Continued in Part two…)

8 thoughts on “How “The Horns Effect” Plays a Part in Bullying

  1. I had to have a long sit down conversation with my son over his lumping groups together. He has a friend who is overweight, he made a passively aggressive comment that obviously hurt feelings. He was of a mind that all it took was trying. I had to explain to him all the stuff about thyroid issues and that some folks are of a different body build, the conversation was not short. But, he did listen and he did comprehend what I was telling him. I have to give him credit for that, and that he has spoken with his friend and made amends.

    • Way to go, Mama! We need more parents like you who teach their kids empathy. Too many parents don’t think of that nowadays. No doubt your son is a fine and upstanding young man.

      • He’s actually an adult who should have known better, but did know better than to ignore my telling him we needed to talk. I know he meant no harm in what he told me he said, but that wasn’t the point. His lack of understanding and compassion was. He does know better now.

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