Summer Series on Psychology #2: The Trouble with Dropping Anchor

 We make estimates all the time. We “eyeball” things, we make rough calculations, we spot check, we guesstimate, and we even try to do long division by drawing numbers in the air.  We often get by this way just fine.  But let’s try a little experiment.  

Take a stab at this multiplication problem by estimating it quickly (take 5 seconds) in your head:  1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8.  

What did you come up with?  40?  60?  Maybe 100?  

Okay, now try this next one:  8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1.  

What did you get this time?  300?  500?  Even more?  

Turns out the answer is 40,320.  I suspect you probably realized that both problems were made up of the same numbers.  So why the different estimates, and why did you (probably) underestimate the value by so much?  This is an example of what is known as the Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic or fallacy.  When we make judgments, we tend to come up with an “anchor,” or starting point, from a limited amount of information, and then make relatively small “adjustments” to that anchor to arrive at our perception.

If our judgments are far off from reality, it’s usually because our anchor was a lousy starting point.  We create our anchors from a number of different sources, including:  

  • our own beliefs,
  • things others tell us,
  • the first information we encounter (like with the multiplication problems above), and often even more arbitrary starting points.  

In fact, researchers have shown just how arbitrary our anchors can be.  In one experiment, they asked people to estimate how many African nations were members of the UN by first spinning a wheel and using the random number the wheel landed on as their starting point. Consistently, people’s guesses were close to whatever number the wheel landed on.  We tend to struggle most to make big enough adjustments from our anchors because we’re biased to cling to that starting point. 

We can make this kind of error not only when estimating values, but also when judging people.

When we see someone do something, we tend to judge his or her personality based on that one behavior, using it as our anchor.  When new information comes to light, it can be difficult to adjust our initial perceptions. When giving and receiving advice, we may fall into the Anchoring and Adjustment fallacy.  As seekers of advice, we may want to be mindful of how we’re describing our situation to others, as we may be providing them with anchors that may make it difficult for them to see the full picture.  

It could also be the case that part of the reason we need advice is because we are struggling to adjust from an anchor we have set with respect to someone in our lives or a challenge we are facing.  As recipients of advice, we might anchor to the first piece of advice we hear, and fail to adjust for new pieces of advice even if that first piece wasn’t so helpful.  When giving advice, we might create anchors from the way in which an advice-seeker has described his or her situation.  We might latch on to one of the first things the seeker says, or make judgments about the seeker’s situation from similar situations in our own lives. This could make it difficult for us to see the full picture of what the advice seeker is facing.

Wherever we set our anchors, it’s important to remember that although they may feel entrenched, they don’t have to be fixed.  With a team behind us and a firm grip, we can pull that anchor back up and consider our perceptions in a new light.


This post was written by Sooth intern, Jeff Bowen:

Jeff is a fourth year social psychology graduate student, studying the role of mental representation and language use in romantic relationship phenomena. For the Summer of Sooth, he's interested in how people frame their requests for advice, whether this influences the type of advice they receive, and how useful they find that advice to be