As early as in 1920, Edward Thorndike demonstrated that we tend to attribute characteristics to a person based on just one character trait. And because we want to prove we’ve made the right judgement, in all our interactions with this person we are constantly looking for ‘evidence’ that shows that we are right. With the following result: if you have labelled someone as being a ‘sociable person’, you will be alert to signals that confirm this ‘observation’ in all your relations with them. It also works in reverse. If you have attached the label of ‘complainer’ to someone, then you will be looking for evidence to back this ‘observation’ up. And this label causes us to not only observe things differently, but to also adapt how we behave in the relationship. In the one relationship we are more likely to encourage contact, while in the other we will tend to keep our distance.
But it’s not just the labels that influence our behaviour, the outward appearance of the other person also plays a role. In 1974, Landy and Sigall conducted a study in which participants were asked to judge the quality of an essay. Each essay was accompanied by a photograph of the author. These were divided into three categories: attractive, reasonably attractive and unattractive. They found that, depending on the photo, the essay was assessed differently. Attractive authors were given a higher mark than the unattractive authors and the control group. In the case of well-written essays, the difference was 1 point, and in the case of badly written essays this was as much as 2.5 points! Based on outward appearances, we even attribute certain character traits to people and estimate their results, another form of bias.
In addition to ‘assumed’ character traits and the outward appearance of the other person, external influences (for example the opinion of a friend, or a piece of music) and our emotional state also have an influence on our powers of observation, our thoughts, our opinions and our behaviour. Take a look at this short film (1 minute).
A common way to put people in certain ‘boxes’ and act accordingly is known as the Halo (angel) and Horn (devil) effect. If someone belongs to the Halo category, it means you like that person. If you see them approaching you, you start to feel positive inside. If they ask you to do something, you’re prepared to help them. And if they make a mistake, you will think: ‘Anyone can make a mistake’, and you can easily forget about it. The Horn category is just the opposite. This is where you will find the people who are in your allergy zone. You just don’t like working with them, and if you had the choice you would avoid them. If they do something positive, you will easily forget it.
Putting someone in the Halo or Horn box therefore influences what you observe about that person. Let’s do a small test to show you what I mean. Choose someone you know who is in the Halo category (someone you really like). Now think of 5 positive qualities this person has. You will probably find this easy to do. Now think of 5 negative qualities this same person has. Very probably you will find this much more difficult. Now think of someone who belongs to the Horn category (allergy). I just have 1 question for you: name 5 positive character traits of this person. You’ll notice that you will find it really difficult (perhaps even impossible) to name 5. But what if I had asked you to name 5 negative character traits of that person…
Putting someone in the Halo or Horn corner also influences how you react in a situation involving this person. Let me give you an example to clarify this. Someone with a Halo (someone you really like) comes in and slams the door behind them. There’s a good chance you’ll think: ‘He’s probably just had an unpleasant conversation, I’ll leave him alone for a while until he’s settled down.’ 15 minutes later he’s sitting on your desk with a cup of coffee for you and himself and telling you his story. Very likely, you will think: ‘see, he’s OK now, that’s good.’ And now the same situation but then involving someone from the Horn category (allergy). He also comes in and slams the door shut. This time you’re likely to think: ‘That’s typical of him, it’s going to be one of those days, why can’t he close the door in a normal way?’ He too brings you a cup of coffee and sits on your desk, and he starts telling his story. The chances are that you will now be thinking: ‘What does he want from me?’ Sound familiar?
When, for example, you are drawing up an annual review or considering people for promotion, it’s very important to be aware of this Halo and Horn effect. It influences how you think and how you view the other person, and therefore also your conclusions and the examples you choose to assess this person ‘objectively’. Make sure then that you always actively look for a balance in the examples of someone’s strong points as well as their points for improvement. And if you are in a discussion with someone who belongs to the Horn category, take time out beforehand to reflect on this person’s good qualities. It’s a form of mentally programming yourself to enter the interview in an objective frame of mind. The same applies of course if you’re having an interview with someone in the Halo category.
Who have you put in the Halo category? And in the Horn category?