Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

It’s in the news and yet it is not new that physical characteristics such as skin color, gender, age and even height impact how people treat each other. Indeed visible diversities, including certain signals of religious identity or disability status, frequently have an influence on the way an interaction between individuals or groups unfolds. That is, certain ways of being, indexed by visual characteristics, are considered good, correct or proper. Those who fit the set of physical/visual norms that are valued in a particular culture, group or environment will find themselves privileged. Those failing to fit the norm are typically stigmatized, marginalized and subject to harms ranging from micro-aggressions to murder.

What may be less well explored in the media coverage is that privilege is typically a multiplier due to how our cognitive systems process information. My looking right has a powerful effect on assumptions about my worth in a particular social context. Based almost exclusively on a quality that does not reliably confer virtue—my physical appearance—I will be granted additional positive qualities (the halo effect) and someone lacking the desired or prototypical look will be assumed to be lacking other qualities as well (the horn effect).

There are at least two reasons that the halo/horn effect deserves deeper consideration. First, it is an example of how first impressions, based on minimal and/or superficial information, set the stage for an interaction. I look at the driver of a car I’ve stopped for a broken taillight and I see that he is black. Black skin confers the horn effect and my mind automatically begins to ascribe negative traits to him and react to his subsequent behavior with these assumptions in place. In the harsh light of the negative attributions engendered by the horn effect, were anything a bit out of the ordinary to occur, I am unlikely to be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Second, the halo/horn effect highlights our tendency to treat new information in ways that conform to beliefs we already hold. The candidate sitting across from me in a job interview is male. Maleness activates the halo effect and he therefore has less to prove and any evidence he provides tends to be construed in line with positive expectations I already have for how effective, competent, driven, etc. male workers are (see this piece by Joan C. Williams for examples of what she calls the Prove It Again problem). As I ask my questions, rather than testing his fitness for the post I am trying to fill, I am seeking to confirm the suitability that his maleness, by virtue of the halo effect, has already cemented in my mind.

The good news is that we can mitigate the halo/horn effect if we make the effort to do so. We can’t stop at first impressions, nor focus solely on those factors that support our case. We need to check our assumptions and expectations against reality and we need to be aware that our version of reality is only our version and seek the opinions and feedback of diverse others. Finally, we can presume that others are always trying to do their best and allow this attribution of good intentions to create a halo effect of its own.


Creative Commons License
The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Privilege is a multiplier – the halo/horn effect

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