What is the anchor bias and how do we overcome it?

Firstly, what is an anchor?


One of the brain’s fascinating features is the concept of anchoring, which is a cognitive bias process. It means that we ‘anchor’ a thought and then base our subsequent judgements based on the anchor.


Here is an experiment to illustrate the point:


When asked the question, “is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 1,200 feet?” The average answer was 844 feet.


When asked the question, “is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 180 feet?” The average answer was 282 feet.


By simply changing the anchor, in this case the number in feet, there was a 66% difference in the answers.


Why do we hold onto anchors?


This has a lot to do with the way we retrieve information from our memories. The quicker and easier it is to recall something, known as availability heuristics, the more likely we are to use that information. In the case of anchoring, we have primed the brain with new information that is easily available before making a judgement or decision. What’s more, the anchor gets fixed in because our brain filters in evidence that it is right and filters out evidence that it is wrong.


Further examples of anchoring experiments


In a courtroom study, Judges were given either high or low sentencing recommendations from the prosecution. For the same crime, the length of imprisonment given by the judges was directly in line with the original recommendation – the anchor. The twist here is that the judges were actually told the sentencing recommendations were arbitrary!


In a consumer study, participants were asked to recall the last 2 digits of their social security number. Then they were asked to price a bottle of wine. Those with higher numbers were willing to pay significantly more for the wine, than those with a low number.


In a 1974 study, participants were asked to spin a wheel to give them an arbitrary number. This was rigged to land either on number 10 or number 65. They were then asked to guess if their number was higher or lower than the number of African nations in the United Nations. The group that had 10 on a median average guessed 25, while the group that had 65 had a median average guess of 45.


It is also worth mentioning that there have been thousands of these experiments and (drum roll please), it has never been disproved!


How does anchoring affect safety?


There are many ways in which anchoring can affect safety, and here are some for you to consider:


Situational – A tradesperson who is asked, “how long will it take to do this job safely” would calculate a reasonable time, e.g. 4 weeks. However, if she is asked, “can you do this job within 2 weeks” she is likely to reduce the time to 3 weeks, because of the anchor, which may be unsafe.


Psychological – When we focus on compliance rather than personal safety, we are anchoring the lack of genuine care, e.g. “make sure you do your job safely” or “what does your risk assessment say”. This subliminal anchor is often in conflict with what we say in more formal safety messaging, e.g. “everyone has the right to go home unharmed”.


Behavioural – Overexposure to occupational health hazards is dangerous. If a person is told “try not to go over your exposure times”, they are more likely to stick to it. However, if they are told “the job will take you an hour, but try not to go over your limit”, they are more likely to exceed the limit.


How to overcome the anchor bias


The only way to do this is to know when your bias has been triggered. By raising your awareness of possible anchors, particularly when important safety decisions are being made, begin by considering what your assumptions are and even what was the last conversation or decision you made, as this can affect your thought process now. It’s a good idea to run your thoughts past someone else who hasn’t been in the same meeting or situations prior to seeking their advice.


Look out for other people’s anchor biases. Not everyone knows or understands how they are affected by the last information they received. You may be in a position to help them see things more objectively when making important decisions and choices.


Create an anchor bias


Now that you are aware of the anchoring bias and how people are subconsciously influenced by it, why not use it to create positive change. You may want to experiment on something that isn’t important to start with, just to familiarise yourself.


Once you feel confident, you can impact how people think and feel about your safety leadership and how they take care of themselves and others. Really think about what you say and do that creates anchors and make sure they are supporting your ultimate goal for safety.