Marketing’s Least Loved: anchor bias

In her regular column for Mumbrella, VMLY&R chief strategy officer Alison Tilling looks at Wheel of Fortune, psychophysics and developing trust.

First impressions count, and that’s partly because the first piece of information we get on a topic also counts – even if it is entirely arbitrary. This is the power of the anchor bias.

In a 1974 Kahneman and Tversky study, participants had to spin a “wheel of fortune” before guessing the percentage of UN countries located in Africa. The participants whose wheels had stopped at higher numbers gave significantly higher estimates. The wheel – which has absolutely nothing to do with geography – acted as a powerful cognitive anchor.

What is anchoring and why did it develop?

The anchor bias, or anchoring effect, refers to the way an individual’s decisions and judgements are influenced by a particular reference point, the ‘anchor’.

Usually, that anchor is the first piece of information given in the process of making a particular decision or thinking about a particular topic. For example, in the very early days of COVID-19, US experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that people shouldn’t wear masks in their day-to-day lives (partly due to fears of shortages). That advice changed as knowledge and research developed; but the anchor had been set, which made the task of encouraging mask-wearing harder. Anchors can also be unrelated or arbitrary pieces of information that the brain is using as an anchor, as in the experiment above.

Again, it is a shortcut for our poor tired brains that have to both experience stimuli and make decisions about them All. The. Time. Anchoring is a way to identify markers to which other information can be compared, and decisions and judgments can be made at the speed and frequency life requires.

Anchoring is a strong bias. Without it we would be all at sea (sorry!) but it’s in the layers of nuance that anchoring gets interesting – and a little scary.

Anchoring and the peak-end rule

Anchoring is key to ways that brands can ‘own’ experiences. The first observations of anchoring came from work in psychophysics, which sounds like the coolest kind of physics possible. When judging stimuli along a continuum, the first and last stimuli were used to compare the others – also known as “end anchoring”. This effect was also observable in attitudes (Sherif and Taub, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1958).

We know the human brain upweights the beginning and end of an experience, but thinking of these as actual anchors has huge implications for brands. It’s not enough to deliver a good experience moment to moment, the brain needs help to package that as a coherent memory that is attached to a brand. Clear signals of beginning and end are important to make an experience distinctive, and to avoid any negative anchoring effects.

Peak-end rule also comes into play here: the ‘end’ of an experience can be the anchor by which the peak is attached to the brand or overcome if the peak emotional intensity was negative. In a small experiment a few years back, we attached heart-rate monitors to people taking flights to attend a business meeting (remember that?!). The emotional peak of the experience wasn’t take-off, or turbulence; it was waiting in the line for a cab – and that emotional peak was attributed back to the airline. The human brain needs clearer anchors for the end of one experience and the start of the next.

The Ikea effect and adding the eggs: the power of self-anchoring

Self-anchoring means the self becomes the anchor, the means by which a particular service or product is valued. 2012 research identified the “Ikea Effect” – the way that people attach more value to a product they have had a hand in making (Morton, Mochon and Ariely; Journal of Consumer Psychology, July 2012). What’s interesting for anchoring is the way the brain attaches the self to the resulting product.

Take making a soup from a meal kit, for example. If the resulting meal is conspicuously good or bad, the brain assimilates the result without self-anchoring. Ambiguity is where things get interesting. If the soup tastes pretty good, then the brain is able to form a believable association between the self and the self-produced outcome. This leads to a transfer of implicit self-esteem to the product itself.

That effect has huge potential power, but marketers need to walk a fine line. As Betty Crocker found back in the 1950’s, a meal kit that does it all for you doesn’t quite work; some self-involvement like adding the eggs is key both for the experience of using the product, and for the esteem people attach to it. Important to involve people, then; but critical too to keep reminding them of the involvement of the brand (Troye and Supphelen, Journal of Marketing, 2012). Clear, prominent labelling to remind people of the brand as they involve themselves in the process is one way to do this; sampling that involves self-production is another.

How can we overcome the negative effects of anchoring?

One force can beat anchor bias: trust.

Anchoring is a strong bias. We anchor automatically, and that first anchor point can be extremely hard to dislodge. What can dislodge it is developing trust, and delivering a counterpoint view from a trusted source. For example, in areas where COVID-19 vaccination rates are low, it might be powerful to use messages from people who were sceptical (a trusted source) but overcame that and got vaccinated – including some detail on both their scepticism and the new ‘anchor’ that helped them to change their mind.

Alison Tilling is the chief strategy officer at VMLY&R. Marketing’s Least Loved is a regular Mumbrella column.


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