Indelible initial impressions: the anchoring effect
|In science, when you’re on a good thing, should you stick to it – or is that a red flag?|
How to recognise this tactic
Anchoring is the human tendency to rely almost entirely on one piece of evidence or study, usually one that we encountered early, when making a decision.
Single experiments practically never settle an important scientific debate – it is the preponderance of evidence among researchers in the field (who must be able to replicate each others’ findings) that determines the currently accepted explanation for any given phenomenon.
Barry L. Beyerstein, Canadian psychologist and skeptic, 1995
Why do people use this tactic?
Anchoring is a cognitive bias – it’s something that we do to ourselves. It shows up in all sorts of places but, in science-related situations, it’s our tendency to rely on and hang on to our first source of exposure to a topic. We then try to fit all new information into the model we have developed around that source, rejecting anything that doesn’t fit. We don’t do this consciously, it’s just a normal human bias.
What’s wrong with this tactic
Anchoring prevents us from considering alternative models. It makes us less likely to abandon models that have been falsified or modify ideas that don’t fit the real-world evidence. So we end up having faulty explanations for all sorts of phenomena. The trouble is that some people don’t realise they have this bias. They continue to harangue us with arguments derived from outdated ideas (that is, they ply us with PRATT), and often succeed in persuading some that they are right.
What to do when confronted by this tactic
Learning to guard against anchoring and other biases is an important part of a scientific education. You need to consciously remain open to new evidence and, if it’s supported by the science, be prepared to revise your thinking. When someone is trying to persuade you, look out for the absence of recent evidence and a reliance on very dated studies. Of course, many scientific explanations refer to long-standing principles such as the law of conservation of energy or the particle model of matter, but these have been repeatedly verified over a long time and this is well-known. If someone continually refers to a relatively obscure idea or study, you should suspect that anchoring is at work.
Variations and related tactics
Anchoring bias is also known as the focusing effect.
- Anti-vaccine campaigners continue to anchor on a 1998 paper by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and others. The paper reported on intestinal disorders found in autistic children and strongly suggested that these disorders had resulted from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. This was not supported by other studies. After an investigation by journalist Brian Deer, published by the British Medical Journal, and an inquiry conducted by the UK General Medical Council, The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010. In the same year, Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register for serious professional misconduct.
- Anchoring is very common among deniers of anthropogenic global warming. One classic anchor focuses on the Vostok ice cores. They show that in the past, rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have lagged behind temperature increases. The deniers use this to resist all evidence showing that increasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is at present the principal driver of global warming. The carbon dioxide – warming connection is, in fact, a self-reinforcing system, so an increase in either CO2 or temperature causes an increase in the other.