Anchoring Our Beliefs

The psy­cho­lo­gic­al prin­ciple of anchor­ing is most com­monly dis­cussed in terms of our irra­tion­al decision mak­ing when pur­chas­ing items. How­ever, Jonah Lehr­er stresses that anchor­ing is more wide-ran­ging than this and is in fact “a fun­da­ment­al flaw of human decision mak­ing”.

As such, Lehr­er believes that anchor­ing also effects our beliefs, such that our first reac­tion to an event ‘anchors’ our sub­sequent thoughts and decisions, even in light of more accur­ate evid­ence.

Con­sider the ash cloud: After the cloud began drift­ing south, into the crowded air­space of West­ern Europe, offi­cials did the prudent thing and can­celed all flights. They wanted to avoid a repeat of the near crash of a Boe­ing 747 in 1989. […]

Giv­en the lim­ited amount of inform­a­tion, anchor­ing to this pre­vi­ous event (and try­ing to avoid a worst case scen­ario) was the only reas­on­able reac­tion. The prob­lems began, how­ever, when these ini­tial beliefs about the risk of the ash cloud proved res­ist­ant to sub­sequent updates. […]

My point is abso­lutely not that the ash cloud was­n’t dan­ger­ous, or that the avi­ation agen­cies were wrong to can­cel thou­sands of flights, at least ini­tially. […] Instead, I think we simply need to be more aware that our ini­tial beliefs about a crisis – those opin­ions that are most shrouded in ignor­ance and uncer­tainty – will exert an irra­tion­al influ­ence on our sub­sequent actions, even after we have more (and more reli­able) inform­a­tion. The end res­ult is a kind of epi­stem­ic stub­born­ness, in which we’re irra­tion­ally anchored to an out­moded assump­tion.

The same thing happened with the BP oil spill.