The Horns Effect

Epistemic Status - curiosity

There are certain concept spaces that are so deeply taboo, that everything that even seems tinged with them is not banned legally, but banned on a far more deep, ideological level. People will mentally avoid topics, solely because they are polluted. We simply don't even think about them, or are not aware that they are even possible ideas.

An Evil Figure

It's a generally recognized moral fact in 21st civilization that Hitler was bad. Or perhaps Bad, with a capital B, as our society's example of the ultimate evil.

🎵 I'm the baaaaaaadddddd guy. Duh. 🎵

At the risk of stating the obvious, Hitler is known as evil due to starting World War 2, invading his neighbors and the Soviet Union, and the abyssal horror that is the holocaust.

The Horns Effect

However, anything associated with Hitler is avoided in much the same way that anything resembling his horrifying crimes are shunned. This is an example of the horn effect, which is the opposite of the halo effect.

😈 Horns effect 😈
The Horns Effect: a form of cognitive bias that causes one's perception of another to be unduly influenced by a single negative trait.

For example, here's a list off the top of my head of things that are viewed as evil post Hitler, but were widely regarded as neutral or good before him:

  • Pencil mustache - Popularized in part by Charlie Chaplin, introduced to Germany by visiting Americans.
  • Colored shirt movements. The Third Reich's Brownshirts were not the only colored shirt movement of their day (there were 30+ in interwar Europe alone). This could be a whole post. For example, the British Union of Fascists, with 50k+ members, was acceptable enough that the Daily Mail ran "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" as a headline.
  • Eugenics. Things like monetary incentives for good marriages for the purpose of improving the human genetic pool were favored by figures like Winston Churchill, Francis Galton (cousin of Darwin), Woodrow Wilson, and John Maynard Keynes. These are not fringe figures. The Carnegie Institute for Science's Eugenics Research Office was active from 1910-1939. (today, the CIS has an endowment just shy of $1B.
  • The Swastika. In Sanskrit, स्वस्तिक, or the romanized svastika, means "conducive to well-being." This is one of humanity's oldest symbols. Many Asian cultures still revere this symbol, despite the highly negative connotations in the West.
Whoever drew on this stone in prehistoric Iran was absolutely not a Nazi. Photo by Basp1.

I could go on. Hitler alone had a powerful enough horns effect around him to completely wipe multiple ideas and trends from the western (or maybe global) consciousness, sheerly by force of how people (rightly) detested the truly horrible things he did.

Collateral damage

Did we lose anything by ditching the pencil mustache? Would our society benefit from non-harmful Colored Shirt Movements? (Not all were fascist. The Boy Scouts are a surviving example.) Did the West lose anything by tossing the non-offensive meanings of the swastika out with the bathwater?

I feel indifferent to the mustache trends. I didn't grow up in an Eastern intellectual tradition, so I don't fully understand the significance that the non-racist interpretations of the swastika mean to them. And I was unaware of the many Colored Shirt Movements until I dove down this research rabbit hole today.

But the idea that the Horns Effect can cause only tangentially related ideas or concepts to die feels pretty solid. Despite the tenuous-at-best link between pencil mustaches and anti-semitism, it seems like a safe bet that Kevin Hart or Chris Rock won't be sporting a pencil mustache at the next Oscars ceremony.


I have zero intention of starting a blue shirt club or wearing a pencil mustache after learning about the collapse of these trends. However, it does make me curious. What cultural trends, ideas, books, or symbols have we lost due to the Horns Effect? Perhaps it's worth looking. Maybe at some point, humanity has thrown out a valuable part of our collective heritage due to an overwhelming evil that somehow became associated with something as innocuous as a robe style or a breed of sandwich.

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