These optical illusions rely on our preconceived notions of the world to trick us. Anchoring is a related phenomenon that warps our perception. While academics do not agree on the causes of anchoring, they agree on the result, which is that prior information skews our perception of new information.
For example, in store one, you find a piece of attractive clothing in your size on the “remainder” rack. Its price tag shows mark-downs in stages from $149 to the current price of $39. What a bargain, almost 75% off. It’s not that you need it, but there’s only one left . . .and you buy it.
In a parallel universe, you find a piece of attractive clothing in your size on the “new arrivals” rack priced at $39. The surrounding racks have similar clothing priced at $29, $25, and $19.95. It would look nice on you, but you walk away without a whiff of regret.
Same clothing, same price, different result because surrounding clues affected your perception of the item. The first store presented you with a super-attractive “bargain.” The second presented you with the most expensive item of its kind.
Marketers know how to trick your mind. Restaurants will include an entrée priced well above anything else on the menu making the other entrées appear “reasonable.” Here’s an interesting article on other tricks restaurants use.
We often use anchoring when we make estimates. Quick: in five seconds give me your best guess of what the product of (1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8) is. Tick Tock. Tick Tock. Your guess is _________? In an experiment, guesses averaged 512. The same experiment asked a different group the question with the numbers reversed (8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1). Those people’s guesses averaged 2,250, more than four times higher than the first group. The actual answer is 40,320, demonstrating we’re lousy at math, but also showing that by starting with small numbers, we guessed a smaller result when presented with larger numbers first.
We build our knowledge of the world bit by bit, comparing the most recent information to what we already “know.” The first article of clothing seemed such a good buy because we anchored around it sitting on a “remainder” rack with a high starting price. We have a false confidence in our “knowledge” and give it priority over new information, especially if that information contradicts what we “know.”
That is why first impressions are so important for people. They become our anchor. We evaluate future actions given the model of the person we have accepted. If the first time we see someone, they are helping a little old lady cross a busy intersection even though afterward they return across the street and head in a different direction, we think them a good person, going out of their way to help others. If the next time we see them, they are strong-arming a youngster into the back seat of a car, we sympathize because we’ve all had to deal with our kids when they had a hissy fit about doing what we wanted when we wanted.
But, if the first time we saw the same person, one police officer was handcuffing him while another comforted a crying youngster, we’d have a vastly different reaction when we saw the “bad” guy strong-arming the child into the back seat.
Readers, step close and let me tell you a secret: authors manipulate you the same way marketers do. Shocking, I know. We show a character performing a nice or heroic act early in the story to “make” you like the person, and that positive vibe carries through even if later they’re going to do some nasty things. This trope even has a name: “save the cat.”
We create red herrings or hide clues by giving you false anchors. In Granite Oath (Seamus McCree #7), releasing at the end of August, a trail camera photograph shows two male thieves, one tall and the other considerably shorter. I think of myself as tall (I’m a six-footer), and so I picture the tall guy is my height, maybe a few inches taller. The short guy must be around 5’4 – 5’6”. Turns out the tall guy is nearly seven feet, and the short guy is taller than me.
When an author pulls the wool over my eyes, I enjoy flipping pages back to discover how they tricked me. Anchoring is often involved.
I’d love to hear in the comments about your fictional reading or real-life anchoring stories.
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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.