Weighed Down By An Anchor

First Published: December 2011 by Chicago Lawyer Magazine

The dialogue on diversity and inclusion, at its core, is about how we think. This column is the first of several columns that will focus on how we really don’t think the way we think we think. So, if you think you know how you think, I hope to make you think again, and I hope to make you think differently about what you think you already know because thinking differently is the first step to thinking differently about people who are different from you.

Most of us intuitively understand the negotiation principle for initially asking for more than you think you can get so that your second (and real offer) sounds more reasonable. Successful car salespeople know to show potential consumers the most expensive cars in the showroom so that all other cars appear to be a bargain in comparison. Experienced real estate professionals will initially show a potential buyer a home that is out of his price range in order to make the buyer more likely to quickly move on a more reasonable option that looks like a steal in comparison.

The principle behind these often intuitive and sometimes strategic behaviors is the anchoring and adjusting of bias. Simply put, the human mind does not like to think in a vacuum so it seeks some information (related or otherwise) to which it can anchor the decisions it makes.

As early as 1974, psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was proving through his research that “different starting points yield different estimates” when formulating an answer to a question.

For example, if I asked you to think of the last two digits of your Social Security number and then think of a number between 1 to 100, you would most likely think of a number that is in the vicinity of and slightly higher than the number represented by the last two digits of your SSN. Our thoughts are
always anchored even when we think (or especially when we think) we are being completely objective and rational.

A recent study published by Todd J. Thorsteinson (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2011) found that even highly implausible anchors impact the ways in which we make decisions. In job interviews, candidates who referenced how much they were paid in their previous positions received
lower salary offers than those who discussed how much they would like to get paid. The candidates who flippantly asked to be paid a million dollars received some of the highest salary offers. Our minds like a starting point from which we can adjust and the starting point has a much higher impact on where we end up than we fully realize.

I recently spoke on the topic of career development and satisfaction at an orientation for new attorneys at a firm where the first-year salary was slightly higher than the national average. I asked everyone to complete a one-question survey that simply asked them to rate their satisfaction (on a 1 to 10 scale) with their overall compensation. Half the survey cards, however, listed the national average starting salary of first-year associates at large law firms while the other half listed the national average of profits for each partner at large law firms. The associates who received the “starting salary” card had
significantly higher satisfaction rates with their compensation than those who received the “partner profits” card. The associates were commenting on their personal views without realizing that their personal views fluctuated with the anchors to which they were moored.

The majority of thinking that we think we are doing is more the process of adjusting to conscious and unconscious anchors than the process of thinking new thoughts. In working with an organization on the gender disparity in bonuses, I noticed that the compensation committee received information about what the person accomplished during the current year along with the amount of the previous year’s bonus. The data analysis clearly revealed that the previous year’s bonus was acting as a stronger anchor for the new bonus calculation than what the individual actually achieved. By substituting the individual’s bonus for the previous year with the organization’s average bonus awarded in the previous year, the overall bonus amounts for the women increased without any training or discussion on gender bias or pay disparities. By shifting the starting points for the thoughts, the endpoints also shifted.

As is true with literal anchors, cognitive anchors are sought by our mind to keep us grounded, but they can just as quickly become a counterweight to breaking free from old patterns of thought. I use the principle of anchoring often to help senior lawyers recognize their own anchors in how they assess
the work of younger lawyers. An individual’s alma mater, her race/ethnicity, his gender, her age, his previous employer, her lifestyle and so many other characteristics can serve as anchors which serve as the starting points from where our thinking departs.

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Arin N. Reeves

a fierce advocate for justice, a geeky catalyst for smarter thinking on inclusion and equity & a firm believer that most rules were meant to be broken