Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias where an individual depends too heavily on an initial piece of information offered (considered to be the “anchor”) when making decisions.
Anchoring occurs when, during decision making, an individual depends on an initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments. Those objects near the anchor tend to be assimilated toward it and those further away tend to be displaced in the other direction. Once the value of this anchor is set, all future negotiations, arguments, estimates, etc. are discussed in relation to the anchor. This bias occurs when interpreting future information using this anchor. For example, the initial price offered for a used car, set either before or at the start of negotiations, sets an arbitrary focal point for all following discussions. Prices discussed in negotiations that are lower than the anchor may seem reasonable, perhaps even cheap to the buyer, even if said prices are still relatively higher than the actual market value of the car.
The original description of the anchoring effect came from psychophysics. When judging stimuli along a continuum, it was noticed that the first and last stimuli were used to compare the other stimuli (this is also referred to as “end anchoring”. This was applied to attitudes by Sherif et al. in 1958 in their article “Assimilation and contrast effects of anchoring stimuli on judgments”.
Anchoring and adjustment is a psychological heuristic that influences the way people intuitively assess probabilities. According to this heuristic, people start with an implicitly suggested reference point (the “anchor”) and make adjustments to it to reach their estimate. A person begins with a first approximation (anchor) and then makes incremental adjustments based on additional information. These adjustments are usually insufficient, giving the initial anchor a great deal of influence over future assessments.
Difficulty of avoiding
Various studies have shown that anchoring is very difficult to avoid. For example, in one study students were given anchors that were obviously wrong. They were asked whether Mahatma Gandhi died before or after age 9, or before or after age 140. Clearly neither of these anchors can be correct, but when the two groups were asked to suggest when they thought he had died, they guessed significantly differently (average age of 50 vs. average age of 67).
Other studies have tried to eliminate anchoring much more directly. In a study exploring the causes and properties of anchoring, participants were exposed to an anchor and asked to guess how many physicians were listed in the local phone book. In addition, they were explicitly informed that anchoring would “contaminate” their responses, and that they should do their best to correct for that. A control group received no anchor and no explanation. Regardless of how they were informed and whether they were informed correctly, all of the experimental groups reported higher estimates than the control group. Thus, despite being expressly aware of the anchoring effect, participants were still unable to avoid it. A later study found that even when offered monetary incentives, people are unable to effectively adjust from an anchor.
Several theories have been put forth to explain what causes anchoring, and although some explanations are more popular than others, there is no consensus as to which is best. In a study on possible causes of anchoring, two authors described anchoring as easy to demonstrate, but hard to explain. At least one group of researchers has argued that multiple causes are at play, and that what is called “anchoring” is actually several different effects.
In their original study, Tversky and Kahneman put forth a view later termed anchoring-as-adjustment. According to this theory, once an anchor is set, people adjust away from it to get to their final answer; however, they adjust insufficiently, resulting in their final guess being closer to the anchor than it would be otherwise. Other researchers also found evidence supporting the anchoring-and-adjusting explanation.
However, later researchers criticized this model, because it is only applicable when the initial anchor is outside the range of acceptable answers. To use an earlier example, since Mahatma Gandhi obviously did not die at age 9, then people will adjust from there. If a reasonable number were given, though, there would be no adjustment. Therefore, this theory cannot, according to its critics, explain the anchoring effect.
Another study found that the anchoring effect holds even when the anchor is subliminal. According to Tversky and Kahneman’s theory, this is impossible, since anchoring is only the result of conscious adjustment. Because of arguments like these, anchoring-and-adjusting has fallen out of favor.
In the same study that criticized anchoring-and-adjusting, the authors proposed an alternate explanation regarding selective accessibility, which is derived from a theory called “confirmatory hypothesis testing”. In short, selective accessibility proposes that when given an anchor, a judge (i.e. a person making some judgment) will evaluate the hypothesis that the anchor is a suitable answer. Assuming it is not, the judge moves on to another guess, but not before accessing all the relevant attributes of the anchor itself. Then, when evaluating the new answer, the judge looks for ways in which it is similar to the anchor, resulting in the anchoring effect. Various studies have found empirical support for this hypothesis. This explanation assumes that the judge considers the anchor to be a plausible value so that it is not immediately rejected, which would preclude considering its relevant attributes. For example, an online-experiment showed that ratings of previous members of the crowd could act as an anchor. When displaying the results of previous ratings in the context of business model idea evaluation, people incorporate the displayed anchor into their own decision making process, leading to a decreasing variance of ratings. 
More recently, a third explanation of anchoring has been proposed concerning attitude change. According to this theory, providing an anchor changes someone’s attitudes to be more favorable to the particular attributes of that anchor, biasing future answers to have similar characteristics as the anchor. Leading proponents of this theory consider it to be an alternate explanation in line with prior research on anchoring-and-adjusting and selective accessibility.
A wide range of research has linked sad or depressed moods with more extensive and accurate evaluation of problems. As a result of this, earlier studies hypothesized that people with more depressed moods would tend to use anchoring less than those with happier moods. However, more recent studies have shown the opposite effect: sad people are more likely to use anchoring than people with happy or neutral mood.
Early research found that experts (those with high knowledge, experience, or expertise in some field) were more resistant to the anchoring effect. Since then, however, numerous studies have demonstrated that while experience can sometimes reduce the effect, even experts are susceptible to anchoring. In a study concerning the effects of anchoring on judicial decisions, researchers found that even experienced legal professionals were affected by anchoring. This remained true even when the anchors provided were arbitrary and unrelated to the case in question.
Research has correlated susceptibility to anchoring with most of the Big Five personality traits. People high in agreeableness and conscientiousness are more likely to be affected by anchoring, while those high in extraversion are less likely to be affected. Another study found that those high in openness to new experiences were more susceptible to the anchoring effect.
The impact of cognitive ability on anchoring is contested. A recent study on willingness to pay for consumer goods found that anchoring decreased in those with greater cognitive ability, though it did not disappear. Another study, however, found that cognitive ability had no significant effect on how likely people were to use anchoring.
The term “anchoring” describes both a psychological-behavioural effect (known as the anchoring effect) as well as the tactical approach making use of this effect. The anchoring effect is where we set our estimation for the true value of the item at hand. In the negotiation process anchoring serves to determine an accepted starting point for the subsequent negotiations. As soon as one side states their first price offer, the (subjective) anchor is set. The counterbid (counter-anchor) is the second-anchor.
In addition to the initial research conducted by Tversky and Kahneman, multiple other studies have shown that anchoring can greatly influence the estimated value of an object. For instance, although negotiators can generally appraise an offer based on multiple characteristics, studies have shown that they tend to focus on only one aspect. In this way, a deliberate starting point can strongly affect the range of possible counteroffers. The process of offer and counteroffer results in a mutually beneficial arrangement. However, multiple studies have shown that initial offers have a stronger influence on the outcome of negotiations than subsequent counteroffers.
An example of the power of anchoring has been conducted during the Strategic Negotiation Process Workshops. During the workshop, a group of participants is divided into two sections: buyers and sellers. Each side receives identical information about the other party before going into a one-on-one negotiation. Following this exercise, both sides debrief about their experiences. The results show that where the participants anchor the negotiation had a significant effect on their success.[page needed]
Anchoring affects everyone, even people who are highly knowledgeable in a field. Northcraft and Neale conducted a study to measure the difference in the estimated value of a house between students and real-estate agents. In this experiment, both groups were shown a house and then given different listing prices. After making their offer, each group was then asked to discuss what factors influenced their decisions. In the follow-up interviews, the real-estate agents denied being influenced by the initial price, but the results showed that both groups were equally influenced by that anchor.
Anchoring can have more subtle effects on negotiations as well. Janiszewski and Uy investigated the effects of precision of an anchor. Participants read an initial price for a beach house, then gave the price they thought it was worth. They received either a general, seemingly nonspecific anchor (e.g., $800,000) or a more precise and specific anchor (e.g., $799,800). Participants with a general anchor adjusted their estimate more than those given a precise anchor ($751,867 vs $784,671). The authors propose that this effect comes from difference in scale; in other words, the anchor affects not only the starting value, but also the starting scale. When given a general anchor of $20, people will adjust in large increments ($19, $21, etc.), but when given a more specific anchor like $19.85, people will adjust on a lower scale ($19.75, $19.95, etc.). Thus, a more specific initial price will tend to result in a final price closer to the initial one.
As for the question of setting the first or second anchor, the party setting the second anchor has the advantage in that the counter-anchor determines the point midway between both anchors. Due to a possible lack of knowledge the party setting the first anchor can also set it too low, i.e. against their own interests. Generally negotiators who set the first anchor also tend to be less satisfied with the negotiation outcome, than negotiators who set the counter-anchor. This may be due to the regret or sense that they did not achieve or rather maximise the full potential of the negotiations. However, studies suggest that negotiators who set the first offer frequently achieve economically more advantageous results.
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Ofer Abarbanel is a 25 year securities lending broker and expert who has advised many Israeli regulators, among them the Israel Tax Authority, with respect to stock loans, repurchase agreements and credit derivatives. Founder of TBIL.co STATX Fund.