What is cognitive bias? The halo effect and horn effect
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What is cognitive bias? The halo effect and horn effect

How often do you go on first impressions? Have you ever made a snap judgement about someone? You could be falling victim to cognitive bias

What is cognitive bias? The halo effect and horn effect

You might have heard the expression, ‘the first impression is the last impression’, meaning it’s hard to change an opinion of someone once it’s formed. Sometimes, we make quick decisions about people and without realising we rely on biases to do this.

The ‘halo or horn effect’ is a cognitive bias where our impression of someone influences how we feel about their overall character. Our brains are trying to categorise copious amounts of information based on previous experiences and memories. But sometimes this isn’t so reliable and we make a biased positive or negative opinion of someone. An easy example to highlight how we might do this is by putting more trust in someone who is an authority figure than someone who is not.

What is the ‘halo effect’?

The ‘halo effect’ is an unconscious bias in which our impression of a person influences how we feel and think about their character. It says that a positive impression of someone in a single area positively influences our feelings of that person in other areas. Kathryn Wheeler at Happiful explains the origins of the halo effect in her article, What is the halo or horn effect and how does it affect workplace culture?

“The concept has its origins in the work of 1920s American psychologist Edward Thorndike. In an experiment, Thorndike asked commanding officers to rate the physique, intelligence, leadership, and character traits of soldiers, before having any interactions with them. What he saw was that when the officer gave a soldier a high rating in one category, they tended to also give them high ratings in the others, too. He named this the ‘halo effect’.”

The expression ‘halo’ refers to the concept sometimes found in religious art, meaning we see that person in an overly positive light. Once the ‘halo effect’ has a good grip on us, it’s difficult to think in a neutral way when evaluating others. One common example of this is when we judge someone’s character based on how attractive we find them. Some people believe that attractiveness affects how we perceive that person’s personality. Certain marketing campaigns use this idea to help sell products. The opposite of this is making negative assumptions about someone’s personality based on how unattractive you may find them. This is known as the ‘horn effect’.

What is the ‘horn effect’?

The ‘horn effect’ is the other side of the coin, when a negative impression of someone in a single area, negatively influences our feelings of that person in all other areas. As with the ‘halo effect’, our brains can go into time-saving mode, making snap judgements based on experiences and memories. Even what mood we are in that day can influence the way we unconsciously categorise someone. It can show up in many ways: when choosing which products to buy, who to vote for, who you want to be friends with, who to date, and where to live. Sometimes, putting people into boxes is a shortcut not to be trusted as some cognitive biases can be harmful, resulting in negatively categorising people because of their gender, class, and race, for example.

Cognitive bias and race

Cognitive biases can lead to discrimination, such as racial bias - this is when someone makes a quick, unfair assumption about another person because of their race. Counselling Directory comments on what racism can look like, “Some people believe that we all have implicit bias, meaning that we treat others differently without consciously realising we’re doing so.” The article goes on to say, “Racism can be loud and quiet. It can be hurting someone physically, treating them as ‘less than’ and shouting hurtful things. It can also be clutching your bag closer as you walk past someone of a different race, touching a Black person’s hair without permission and other microaggressions.”

Racial cognitive biases can play out at work, within friendship groups, in schools, on the street, in the media, and pretty much everywhere. It can also be a problem within the therapeutic space. In their article, Let's talk creative clinical supervision during lockdown, Dramatherapist Judy Nkechukwu, explains the importance of confronting biases.

“For therapists, now is the time to deepen the enquiring mind to disentangle the threads of 'unsaids' and dare to be open to confronting the biases, social and cultural conditioning we have all grown to suppress through our daily lives.” Thinking more critically rather than reacting unconsciously can help us challenge ‘the horn effect’.

How do I combat the ‘horn effect’?

Even though it’s hard to admit, we’ve probably all made quick judgements, finding those initial impressions is tricky to let go of. A simple way to break the cycle is to slow it all down. Being really mindful of our thinking processes when we’ve unknowingly categorised someone helps us get a broader perspective.

Take a few conscious breaths and become aware of your thinking for a while. Try asking yourself a few questions, such as, ‘who does this person remind me of?’ or ‘when else have I categorised someone in this way?’ It can be empowering to deepen your understanding of why you may emotionally respond in certain ways.

You could even share your experience with a good friend or trusted family member who may help you look at things from a more neutral angle. If a person is reminding you of someone, perhaps wonder how they are different. Being more aware of cognitive biases when evaluating people and situations may help you make more objective decisions.


If this has resonated with you and you’re finding yourself getting trapped in a ‘halo’ or ‘horn’ effect, you may benefit from reaching out to one of our qualified counsellors. They may be able to help you expand your overall sense of self-awareness and challenge any cognitive biases.

If you are struggling with any of these behaviours or would like to know more about the benefits of counselling, visit Counselling Directory

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