So you’ve probably heard of the anchoring effect. But as educators, few of us have stopped to consider how it influences the decisions we make every day at school. We’ll try to change that with this piece! We’ll take a brief look at the research behind anchoring, examine examples of it in education, and arrive at a few tools we can use to overcome it. As we’ll see, in order to imagine a better education for our kids, we first need to break through the anchors that hold us back!
The Anchoring Effect Defined
According to Daniel Kahneman, the Noble-prize winning author of Thinking Fast and Slow, “The anchoring effect occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered – hence the image of the anchor.”
To demonstrate this effect, Kahneman and Amos Tversky (his research partner in crime) conducted a number of experiments. Below is one such example. Consider the two questions given to a group of study participants:
1) Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet?
2) What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?
For another group in the study, Question 1 was replaced with, “Is the height of tallest redwood more or less than 180 feet?” That’s right – the difference between the two “anchors” in the study’s first question was 1,020 feet. And how did that affect the two groups’ estimates of the height? The first group responded with an average height of 844 feet, while the second group’s estimate was 282 feet.
“The anchoring effect occurs when people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity. What happens is one of the most reliable and robust results of experimental psychology: the estimates stay close to the number that people considered – hence the image of the anchor.”
That’s the power of anchoring!
When working with numbers, the associative machinery of our brains goes to work to find compatible evidence, and in the process, our estimates stay close to the number that was given. While we could provide numerous examples of this from Kahneman’s research, let’s shift gears to examine how anchoring influences the decisions we make at school.
The Anchoring Effect at School
Let’s consider a handful of questions that educators face. We’ll take a look at some questions regarding student performance, school design, and resource allocation.
Student Performance and Behavior:
Will Barbara, who has failed the last 3 semesters of science, score above or below a 60% on the semester final? What is your best guess as to how Barbara will score?
Will Anthony, who has received more than 10 referrals in each of the last 2 school years, receive more or less than 10 referrals this year? How many referrals will he receive?
After reading about the redwood trees above, one can clearly see how the presence of particular numbers (a score of 60% or 10 referrals) will influence an educator’s thinking. This result, of course, is problematic. If this is the way information is presented, it’s nearly impossible for a teacher to view Barbara’s growth and potential objectively. Likewise, how is Anthony, a student who may have had behavioral problems in the past, supposed to grow out of the “labels” that have been placed on him?
Should the school day, which runs from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm every day, be shortened or extended? How long should the school day be?
Should a “block” class period, which averages 90 minutes in length, be increased? How long should the school’s class periods be?
Here again, one can see how the presence of particular values (an 8-hour school day or a 90 minute class period) inevitably influences the school design decisions we make. However, if we recognize the need for adapting our schools’ schedules to better suit the needs of our students, perhaps we’d be better off priming our minds with different questions. Should every school day be the same in length? Would we benefit from “core subjects” having longer periods and “elective courses” being shorter? What are the priorities from which we’d like to design our schedule (rather than what was done last year)?
The average 5th year teacher is paid $45,000 nationally. Should we pay our teachers more or less than the average? What should our salary schedule look like?
Schools of our size have 3 assistant principals and 5 secretaries. Should we have more or less than that? How should we staff our school?
By now, you get the point. When we start a discussion with historical data and figures, we’re significantly more likely to make decisions that produce similar outcomes. And again, there are so many other thoughtful questions available to us. What do innovative pay structures look like in education? How do we pay our teachers to compete with other prestigious careers (and thus increase the level of talent in our profession)? How do we staff our schools to meet our priorities? Yes, it’s helpful to know how other schools make decisions about their school day and staffing. But if that information only serves to limit our creativity, one has to wonder whether we’d be better off starting from scratch.
Busting Our Anchors – Reimagining What’s Possible
So how can we counteract the effects of anchoring and make better decisions at school?
Kahneman writes, “The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy.”
Kahneman implores us to be ultra-aware of the moments that anchoring is present: “You should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you, and if the stakes are high you should mobilize [your deliberate processes of thinking] to combat the effect.”
In other words, do these things. If someone is talking to you about student performance and possibilities, be aware that your mind is anchoring to the numbers being presented. When you are making decisions about how the school day should look, consider how powerful your past experience and the present environment are in shaping your views. And when you’re considering the allocation of your budget, spend time thinking very creatively and challenge each of the assumptions around why spending levels should be where they’re at. It’s time to pull up our anchors! Our kids deserve better!
“You should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you, and if the stakes are high you should mobilize [your deliberate processes of thinking] to combat the effect.”