Those who want to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict might benefit
by considering what a psychologist discovered
about human cognition one hundred years ago.
I came home one day to a disturbing scene.
Eight flower pots that I had painstakingly arranged in a row in my front yard now lay upended. I had a notion who had done the deed—-a mischievous resident in my housing development. I’ll call him Pete. Other minor harassments followed.
Pete continued his unprovoked harassments until I called the police, whose stern warning to him put an end to the affair. I chalked this one up to experience and prepared to forget about the incident.
But then something happened that surprised me.
A number of my acquaintances in the community began to avoid me, or they became aloof. It took me a while to figure this out.
No one in the community felt neutral about Pete. Many residents in the anti-Pete camp had complaints about his bad behavior. But an equal number of residents were fans of his. They socialized with him and some even hired him to care for relatives or tend their yards.
Those in the pro-Pete camp were offended that I had called the police on their friend. They focused on my behavior and seemed to overlook Pete’s transgressions.
The Halo and the Horn
The Pete incident revealed a phenomenon that plays out repeatedly—-in small communities such as mine, and also in the wider world.
In 1920, psychologist Edward Thorndike coined the term, halo effect. In his study, he asked military officers to rate their soldiers on a number of personal characteristics such as intelligence, physical appearance and dependability. He found that soldiers who received high ratings on any one of the characteristics tended also to receive high ratings on other characteristics. So, for example, officers who rated soldiers highly on physical appearance also rated them highly on intelligence and dependability—-even though there was no rational reason to believe that these personal traits go together.
Thorndike had discovered a universal cognitive bias in the way we think about people. If we have a positive impression of a person, then we tend to think positively about that person in general. Having a positive appraisal—-of any personal quality—-tends to bleed over into our appraisals of other personal qualities of that individual.
Not surprisingly, negative appraisals of a particular personal quality also tend to result in negative appraisals of other qualities of that person. This has been called the horn effect, after the devil’s horns.
Our overall impression of a person influences how we think and feel about that person’s traits in general.
Thorndike’s theory goes a long way toward explaining my neighbors’ puzzling reaction to me when I called the police on Pete. My neighbors in the pro-Pete camp took his side because they liked him and believed he was a good guy all around. Because I had done something they disliked (I called the police) they perceived me as having a host of negative attributes. The way my neighbors perceived Pete and me was distorted. Their view turned the victim (me) into the bad guy. The culprit (Pete) became the good guy.
The same halo-horn effect governs public attitudes towards Israelis and Palestinians.
Cognitive Distortion in the Israeli-Arab Conflict
There is a dedicated crew of people in the west who always see the Israeli-Arab conflict as a story about Israeli perpetrators and Arab victims. The halo-horn effect is at work here.
Consider one example. The Irish government is among the most anti-Israel of all European governments (although at least one survey showed that Ireland is one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Europe). The Irish government routinely condemns Israel and overlooks Palestinian aggression and human rights crimes. Support for anti-Israel boycotts is strong. The Irish Parliament voted to ban the import of Israeli goods made in Judea and Samaria.
In the view of many Irish people, Palestinians are like the Irish. The Palestinians are fighting against “colonization” by the Israelis, just as the Irish fought against colonization by the British.
Is it possible that Irish officials’ negative view of some of Israel’s policies has “bled over” into their evaluation of Israel as a nation? Has the horn effect led the Irish government to distort the reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict?
How else can we explain the odd view that Israelis are colonizers like the British? This view is odd because, in its struggle for independence, the Jews of Israel were bitter enemies of the British. Israelis died fighting the British. The British hunted down, imprisoned and executed many leaders of the Haganah and other Jewish groups fighting for Israeli independence.
In line with Thorndike’s halo-horn theory, many in Ireland view Israelis as colonizers and usurpers, and this, in turn has led them to view Israelis as having many other negative qualities. That is, in their view Israelis are bad guys. They see Palestinians, on the other hand, as brave defenders of their homeland who seek to expel foreign invaders. This admirable quality has then bled over into a perception of the Palestinians as good guys.
The Irish are not alone in their view of bad-Israelis and good-Palestinians. This moralistic view is widely (but far from universally) held by European citizens and governments. This is the case despite the reality that Palestinian citizens and the Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza have increasingly turned to radical Islam. Radical Islam is not shy about its goals. Its leaders have made it clear that their ultimate goal is the subjugation of non-Muslims and the imposition of Islamic law across the globe. This directly contradicts the interests and values of most people in Europe. And yet, many Europeans side with the Arabs against Israel.
The halo-horn theory may explain what is happening here. Once having decided that Israel has negative traits and that Palestinians have positive traits, all of Israelis’ actions are seen as immoral and all of Palestinians’ actions as admirable.
An Explanatory Theory
Even though I was a blameless victim of a crime, some of my neighbors sided with the perpetrator against me. The perpetrator’s good qualities and his history of friendship with my neighbors, led them to judge him as a good guy and to overlook his reprehensible behavior. Because they saw me as the bad guy, my neighbors negatively judged my efforts at self-defense.
Is this similar to the way in which many observers of the Israeli-Arab conflict have distorted reality by seeing the “good guy” as all good and the “bad guy” as all bad?
Does Thorndike’s halo-horn theory explain why many Irish and other Europeans side with an increasingly radicalized Palestinian world —-even though that radical stance is inconsistent with European values and interests? Do anti-Israel Europeans view the Israeli-Arab conflict through a lens of cognitive distortion?
It is wrong to attribute any complex world conflict to psychological factors alone. But those who want to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict might benefit by considering what a psychologist discovered about human cognition one hundred years ago.