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Imagine yourself in a clothing store. You find the perfect pair of jeans but, unfortunately, they’re WAY above your budget. However, the store saleswoman says that right now it’s at 35% off. Joyfully, you might think it’s a bargain and you might agree to buy it. Now, picture yourself waiting in the entrance of a restaurant.  You are told to wait 30 minutes but when the 30 minutes are up, your name isn’t called. However, when the host says it’ll be just 5 more minutes, rather than complaining about it, you start getting excited that it’s almost your turn. Do you notice a pattern? In both situations, your expectations before deciding were strongly influenced by the information you received and that served as reference point for your actions (the 35% off doesn’t seem expensive in comparison with the full price and a 5-minute wait is nothing compared to half an hour). 

Is a good deal always a good deal?

This phenomenon is known as anchoring. It is a type of cognitive bias,1 where a person is exposed to (typically) a first piece of information (whether it be a number, an idea, a belief, etc.) and that piece of information (this is the anchor) will be the reference point for all subsequent decisions. Once the value of the anchor is set in stone, all future negotiations or arguments are discussed in relation to that anchor. We invite you to explore this intriguing psychological effect, learning more about how exactly it manifests and how we can outsmart it. 

A very common anchoring effect can come in the form of numbers.  An experiment has been used to measure the strength of an arbitrary anchor when judging house prices using a group of college students. The students were first given an introductory 10-minute presentation on facts and figures regarding the housing market in the beginning of the experiment. After the presentation ended, they were asked to write down the last three digits of their phone and then multiply that three-digit number by one thousand. Finally, when asked to estimate the house prices, the results showed that the student’s estimates were strongly influenced by the arbitrary number or rather anchor, despite going through the presentation. Notice how the number was completely randomised. There is no correlation between your phone number and the housing prices, yet the effect was still present. Therefore, irrelevant information can appear “relevant” even when it is completely nonsensical. 

Would you predict the housing price of your local neighbourhood with just a phone number? 

The effect can also be present in negotiations. During courtroom proceedings, an attorney and prosecutor might discuss the sentencing of a defendant in hopes of achieving a fair trial. However, these discussions might not always be fair. For example, when looking at the news about the results of a court case, you might notice that people charged with very similar, if not, equal crimes are sentenced differently. This can be explained by the anchoring bias. In the research paper, “Heuristics and Biases in Judicial decisions”, Eyal Peer and Eyal Gamliel found that judges were highly susceptible to this effect! Both novice and experienced judges were given two different demands for a sentence by an alleged prosecutor. One sentence was 12 months, and the other was 34 months. The results showed that when given the 12-month demand, the judges requested more information that was consistent with this sentence and the same was done for the 34-month demand. Rather than using their own judgement, they used the number as a reference point despite it not being legally relevant to the actual crime.

Even highly qualified judges can be swayed by the anchoring effect

Businesses also are known for taking advantage of the “first impressions” felt by their clients through their marketing campaigns. Let’s look back to the release of the original iPad. After Steve Jobs listed the iPad’s amazing features, he asked the audience how much they think it should cost. He initially said that the price was $999 and left the number there for a few moments. Afterwards, he concluded that Apple was able to meet its cost goals and so the actual starting price of the iPad was $499. In the presentation, the number $999 was destroyed by a falling number $499. In that exact moment, we can see that the iPad was perceived as “cheap” because the previous price became the anchor.  

Steve Jobs announcing the “cheaper” price during his presentation of the iPad

Of course, anchoring can come also extend past the numbers. We can easily be influenced by opinions or ideas and set those as our anchors.  For example, let’s suppose that your parents lived well into their 90s or even 100s. You might expect that, being their son/daughter, you will also live a long happy life. However, this anchor can lead you to ignore the fact that your parents lived a much healthier and more active lifestyle that could’ve helped them reached a very old age while you may eat poorly or lead a sedentary lifestyle. Again, we can see how the anchoring effect can not only be inaccurate but also lead us to think poorly and not reconsider the repercussions. In a more serious situation, let’s say that you are feeling ill, and you consult a physician in order to take a better look at you. While the person examining you is indeed a licensed physician, their first impressions of you regarding your symptoms inevitably will create an anchor point for them while will impact every examination or assessment you do with them.  

There are various ways that help mitigate the influence of the anchoring effect. Two studies have shown that before accepting an anchor, it’s important to list the cons or arguments on why that anchoring point is disadvantageous. Thomas Mussweiler, a professor of organizational behavior expressed the following: “In a real-world setting using experts as participants, Study 1 demonstrated that listing arguments that speak against a provided anchor value reduces the effect. Study 2 further revealed that the effects of anchoring and considering the opposite are additive”. Another way to reduce the impact of anchoring is by “dropping you own anchor”. For example, when looking for a home. Do not simply stick by one desirable price point. You’re better off finding a home with similar features, similar square foot, similar price points, etc. The more you research, the easier it is to determine a reasonable anchor. In case of any doubt, the last step would be to simply know when to walk away. When for example determining your salary for a job, if you find that the employer is giving you a salary below the average and refuses to budge from it, it’s not a bad idea to respectfully decline and/or walk away.  

From the convenience store around the corner, to the courthouse, or even passing through the most mundane interactions we have, anchoring is everywhere we look. It´s a fascinating phenomenon that is bound to be part of nearly every decision we make. Anchoring is a mental shortcut that allows our brains to make comparisons and value the numerous items we see every day, however, as any other shortcut in life, it has its risks. With the help of this article, we hope that you, as, a judge, an entrepreneur, or simply a consumer, can harness the advantages of this effect, but at the same time, be AWARE, of its dangers. 

Daniel Calado

Afonso Serrano

Mariana Gomes

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