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

Guest Post — Anne Smith

In a First, Engineers choose from 2 Women for President-Elect
Everyone has a stereotype for the typical engineer, and from 1852 to 2004, the American Society of Professional Engineers (ASCE) membership dutifully elected an older experienced male, “a gray hair,” to be their president. Finally, in 2004 and twice since, a female candidate has been elected over a male candidate by a majority male membership, breaking the 150 year old glass ceiling. Twelve years later, in another first, ASCE will choose from two women for President–Elect.

As an ASCE member, what I find so interesting is that this year “Gender” in itself is no longer a major reason to sway the vote. Not that gender won’t play a role, but it will be one of many influences in this campaign. For these candidates to appeal to their ASCE membership of 145,000, with a wide diversity of cultures, generations and experience, there are many bases they have to cover:

Demonstrating Experience – To be nominated both candidates had to meet a certain education, experience and ASCE leadership bar in the profession. However candidates also have to meet member expectations from different generations ranging from “have they earned it, gone through all the steps and done their time” to “are they progressive, flexible, showing initiative.”

Regional Support – This national organization is divided into 9 US regions, from Hawaii and Alaska on the west all the way to Florida and Maine in the east, and each candidate will be looking for regional support. They will each have a home region that will probably want their home candidate to win but to campaign to the rest of the diverse regions requires highly leveraging their professional and social networks.

Networking – Because of the diversity of age in the organization, networking or accessing the membership has to be multi-faceted. The older members tend to be more accessible through face-to-face contacts, professional meetings and email, whereas the younger members are sometimes only accessible through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn or the social ASCE activities. The sheer numbers of members that need to be reached leads to a reliance on support of personal networks to advocate for the candidates.

Personality/Leadership Style – The candidates didn’t get where they are now by being wallflowers so they are leaders and have convinced a lot of people they can do the job. We all know from political campaigns how much personality and style can affect a potential vote for a candidate. Their own personality style and relationships will directly influence how many in their networks will jump on board to advocate for them nationally. Although there is greater personality style diversity than most people assume in engineering populations, personality style tests of several hundred engineers show that the membership is more likely to be introverted than extraverted, more likely to be detail oriented than big-picture or vision oriented, much more likely to make their decisions based on facts and logic than personal values, and more likely to be focused on structure and organization than process and flexibility. Candidates however have the challenging task of meeting the majority of members’ type needs for their buy-in and vote.

Gender and Diversity – The cultural and gender diversity is rapidly increasing especially in the membership and leadership of student and younger professional groups. In their vision statements, the candidates address elevating the engineering profession globally and improving the quality of life for members and community. They will also need to relate to many different constituencies in those groups to get their votes. So when will there be a minority woman candidate and who will be the other candidate? A minority man or woman? How will the campaign strategies differ? I see a number of candidates on the fast track now and others who probably could have been candidates in a different era! For now, let’s celebrate “The times, they are a changing” – Bob Dylan

Anne Smith, P.E.
President, Smith Culp Consulting
Engineer and Facilitator who loves to analyze the numbers and the people!

Guest Post — Anne Smith