Mental Model: Horns Effect and Halo Effect

One of the most powerful, and potentially harmful, mental models you will encounter in your life is known as the horns effect and halo effect.  It can cloud your judgment, and because it is closely related to the mere association mental model, has the power to cause you to make sub-standard decisions or hold irrational beliefs.  You must train yourself to actively fight against it.

Angel Halo and Horns EffectDevil Halo and Horn EffectWhat is the horns effect and halo effect?  It is a cognitive bias that causes you to allow one trait, either good (halo) or bad (horns), to overshadow other traits, behaviors, actions, or beliefs.  In psychology, horns effects and halo effects happen all the time.  Attractive people are, on average, though to be more intelligent even though this isn’t true.  Overweight people are thought to be lazy, which is not necessarily the case.

The power of the horns effect and halo effect comes from the fact that it is closely related with several other mental models and, working together, you get a magnified influence.  On one hand, you have mere association at work.  On the other hand, you have the mental model of implicit personality theory, which states that individuals believe traits are inter-connected so that the presence of one traits means the presences of others, which isn’t true (e.g., a girl who dressed provocatively might not sleep around and someone who speaks slowly might not be unintelligent).

The best way to illustrate how powerful the horns effect and halo effect are is to give you real life examples using extreme cases.

The Horns Effect: The Case of Ayn Rand and William Hickman

Ayn Rand was fond of a phrase, “What is good for me is right”, that was attributed to a man named William Hickman.  In her philosophical school of thought, Rand believed that the only way to drive the world was through the harnessing of individual selfishness into a system that provided good benefit for everyone, which explained why Western style capitalism resulted in far higher standards of living, despite its flaws, than any thus far discovered model.  Rand believed the quote was the closest thing to how real men and women thought that she had ever read.

[mainbodyad]People who know Rand’s works realize she passionately disavowed the use of initiated violence to solve a problem, believing it to be a great evil.  Men must persuade one another through facts and reasons, not bombs and guns.  The central thesis was that each man should be entitled to live as he would and achieve what he could without others trying to take from what he had rightly acquired.  One of the reasons Ayn Rand despised redistribution of wealth through taxation is because the underlying threat was one of restraining freedom; that is, if you don’t pay your taxes to be given to someone else as voted by the mob, they would throw you in prison, a de facto threat of violence.

Decades later, critics who reviled Rand’s school of thought would often point to the quote she used by William Hickman and say accusatorially, “Don’t you know what kind of man William Hickman was?”.  Thanks to essays by people such as Michael Prescott, we can tell exactly what kind of man William Hickman was.  Warning: The next few paragraphs are graphic.

The Case of William Hickman
In 1927, William Edward Hickman, a 19 year old male, went to a Los Angeles school and managed to get his hands on a 12-year-old girl named Marian Parker, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent banker.  He sent ransom messages to Mr. Parker demanding $1,500, which the banker paid in gold certificates.  Today, in inflation-adjusted terms, that is roughly $18,700.  Hickman said he needed the money to attend Bible college.  He would sign the messages cruelly with “Death” or “Fate”.

At the ransom drop-off point, Mr. Hickman could see his 12 year old daughter in the car.  After the money had changed hands, the car sped off, and his daughter was dumped on the side of the road.  She was dead.  Her legs had been cut off, her internal organs removed and strewn all over the city, and her eyes wired to make it appear as if she were alive.  He had drained her of blood, stuffed her with bath towels, and severed her hands.

Hickman told police, “Marion and I were good friends, and we really had a good time when we were together and I really liked her. I’m sorry that she was killed.”

Clearly, William Hickman was a psychopathic nut job.  One could call him evil but to be evil require a sense of accountability and Hickman just seems downright crazy.

People who disagree with Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy yet can’t come up with any rationally stated reason will point to the attribution of one of her favorite quotes, asking either implicitly or explicitly, “What does it say about someone that they like a quote from a monster capable of such horrific acts?”.

This is the horns effect.  The quote, “What is good is right for me,” which Ayn Rand correctly identified as getting the heart of how most people think about the world, was cast under the shadow of the horns of the man to whom it is attributed, William Edward Hickman, to the point that most people would likely dismiss it out-of-hand without considering whether the quote is true or not.

In reality, no matter who made the statement, the statement is either true or untrue on its own merits as an independent “thing”.  It can either be proven or disproven.  It is what it is regardless of origin or source.

The Halo Effect: The Case of Joe Paterno and The Penn State Scandal

Over the past few days, we’ve discussed the mental models at play in the Joe Paterno and Penn State scandal.  One of the things we haven’t discussed in-depth is the rioting students at Penn State, who are defending Joe Paterno and don’t like the fact he was fired for what appears to the outside world as a case of a man covering up and remaining complicit in the activities of an alleged child rapist.

Why would otherwise good people jump to Paterno’s defense when his inactions appear completely devoid of morality to the point of unquestionable moral bankruptcy?  The halo effect.

For more than half a century, Joe Paterno devoted his life to building a program that churned out countless athlete leaders, changed the world of sports, left an enduring legacy, and stood for excellence.  He has come to be a shining beacon of good for both the institution of Penn State and the game of college football.  The “halo” of his reputation and actions are so strong that for some people, particularly those close to the program, his firing is incomprehensible.  They are blinded by the penumbra of light that is visible from behind the looming scandal and cannot believe that a man they respect and admire so deeply could possibly have stood by as his former defensive coordinator allegedly brought young boys, who many people had reason to believe were being molested and raped, to athletic games and other events.

Unable to treat the situation objectively due to the strength of the halo, men and women who would otherwise be demanding vengeance and blood had the same actions been taken by their neighbor or local school counselor, are arguing we should look the other way or forgive Paterno.

How to Protect Against the Horns Effect and Halo Effect

The best defense against the horns effect and halo effect is to always adhere to one rule: Every idea must stand on its own merit regardless of who proposes it.

[mainbodyad]That is easier said that done.  Consider the case of the average Republican, who is supposedly pro-tax cut.  A few months ago, President Obama proposed a 50% payroll tax cut that would have been one of the greatest middle class tax cuts in the history of the United States.  They opposed his jobs bill, which included the tax cut, in large part because it would have been a political “win” for him.  In the far-right mind, the “horns” of Obama’s personality overshadowed their own self-interest.

Go through life evaluating every proposal and every situation on its own merits, its own rationality, and its own opportunity costs and outcomes.  This is exactly why John Stuart Mill would read books, articles, and other evidence that he knew to be wrong in order to, ” [see] that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error”.  He had built a system that compensated for the horns effect and halo effect, allowing him better cognition.

It is important that you realize the horns effect and halo effect are not without merit.  While you should strive to remove them from your cognition, they should still influence your behavior.  I wouldn’t want to be around people who lie, steal, or cheat even if they are good at their job or otherwise pleasant.  There is nothing wrong with being cautious when an otherwise bad person says something that might seem to make sense; the proverbial “devil in a Sunday hat”.

A good idea is a good idea even if it is proposed by the town drunk.  A bad idea is a bad idea, even if it is proposed by the town hero.  Never forget that and act accordingly.  This is one of the reasons that mature thinkers don’t take offense when someone attacks their positions or ideas – they are not extensions of the person, but rather must stand on their own.  There is nothing I enjoy more than assaulting my own beliefs from all sides to see if it can withstand the force.  That approach is why I get more and more rational with each passing year, and my real-world results reflect that.  There is nothing original in this approach.  Anyone is free to adopt it.

  • Gilvus

    Isn’t this the same thing as the spotlight fallacy?

    • Joshua Kennon

      No.  In some instances, they might seem similar but they are different.

      The spotlight fallacy is when a person wrongly assumes that everyone in a group shares characteristics similar to the high profile examples he sees or the sample population with which he comes into contact.  That is, the spotlight fallacy is when your brain begins to automatically classify and stereotype a group based upon a few high-profile examples you see.  For example, “He is rich, therefore he must have made his money winning the lottery or getting huge undeserved bonuses from stockholders” even though those are a tiny minority of the top 1%.  People believe them because their attention is only drawn to the outliers in news stories.

      The horns effect or halo effect, in contrast, is when the presence of a specific trait bleeds over into your assessment of a person as a whole.  For example, “Jim is a great community leader, football coach, and respected fundraiser so he can’t be a pedophile even though the evidence suggests that he is behaving inappropriately with children” is an example of the halo effect because the bad evidence is being looked over or ignored due to the positive personality traits.  Likewise, “Ron might serve families at the food bank but don’t leave him alone with the kids because he once went to jail for forgery” is an example of the horns effect because the non-related bad personality trait – dishonesty – is bleeding over into your assessment of everything Ron does.

      Examples of the Three Types of Cognition Errors
      “All muslims are terrorists”, “All gays are promiscuous”, “All Democrats are socialists” = Spotlight Fallacy
      “He wouldn’t steal from me, he works very hard and he is a Christian.” = Halo Effect
      “He probably stole the money, he talks back to his mother and he is an Atheist!” = Horns Effect

      • Gilvus

        Thanks for the clarification.

  • hello Joshua
    im making a report on these mental models, doing a case study. I sort of linked these two with characters present in social dramas. may I take the examples from this research of yours? it will help me in a big way.
    karach, pakistan

    • I will write this link as well … I hope you allow

      • I kind of have to submit it like on Monday so… 🙂

  • Joshua Encabo

    Is horn effect and fundamental attribute error the same?

    • esther

      No, the fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute someone’s actions only to their internal or personality qualities. If we put ourselves in the situation and try to come up with why we would have done it we often then include situational factors.
      For example: Someone cuts you off while you’re driving.
      You likely will think that they’re a terrible driver or maybe even that they’re rude and selfish. However, when you put yourself into their place and try to explain why you cut someone off it goes a little differently. You might have been going somewhere that you’d never driven to before and been in the wrong lane.
      The fundamental attribution error and the horn effect are kind of both based on assumptions ( they quick and you don’t think when you’re doing it) but the fundamental attribution error doesn’t associate one action negatively and the other positively. It also doesn’t directly impact our actions as much. The horn effect impacts our views of others and so does the fundamental attribution error. The main difference is that one “tries” to explain others behaviors (F.A.E) and the other one just associates good and bad with something.
      I am not an expert, but hopefully this helps!!