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What Anchoring and The Contrast Principle Mean to Lawyers

Ghandi with Anchoring

Here’s a fun trick to play on your friends. Ask them two questions, making sure no one hears anyone else’s responses (a sound-proof booth comes in handy):

Was Gandhi’s age greater or less than 144 when he died?

Get your response, which, if your friends are remotely intelligent should be “younger”. Then follow up with this:

How old was Ghandi when he died?

Repeat the experiment with a different group of friends, but instead, change Ghandi’s age:

Was Gandhi’s age greater or less than 42 when he died? How old was Ghandi when he died?

What you’ll find is a demonstration of the principle of a phenomenon called “anchoring.” The friends who fielded the 144 question will, on average, give you a higher answer to Ghandi’s age than those faced with the 42 question.

People are affected by the number they had to mentally process via a phenomenon called “anchoring.” The Ghandi experiment is a quick way to observe anchoring in action. We tested it with a group of people at MILOFest 2012 and it proved out. You can read about the studies and science behind anchoring in legendary behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

We all fall victim to anchoring, which is closely related to the “contrast principle”, which is a frighteningly weird and powerful short circuit in human perception. Once you’re aware of the contrast principle, you’ll be aware how often your mind has been hacked.

The contrast principle is highly studied human perception issue where we magnify the differences between two things when they’re compared in succession. If you lift a light weight, then a heavy one, the second weight you lifted will appear heavier to you than if you lifted it on its own. Bob Cialdini explores the contrast principle in Influence: Science and Practice.

The contrast principle is used all the time in sales to guide you to a desired purchase. An example Cialdini gives is that when you go to a department store to buy a sweater and a suit, you will be shown the expensive Armani suit first before you are shown anything else. In comparison, the price of the sweater seems minimal.

It’s the reason one of the items on a dinner menu is much more expensive than any other items: the other choices seem more reasonable by comparison. When you order wine with your friends, do you pick the most expensive one? The cheapest one? Or the one in the middle? More subtly, when you buy a house or a car, it explains why additional options, even if they’re in the thousands of dollars, seem perfectly rational. The price of the major purchase makes the other very expensive purchases seem minuscule by comparison.

So the next time you find yourself in settlement talks or negotiations, or in a department store for that matter, consider human vulnerability to anchoring and contrast perception, and use that awareness to your advantage.

This article is the second in a series on tips for lawyers to use your brain to its full capacity. It’s based off a presentation I gave at MILOFest 2012 called “Hacking Your Mind”. You can find the first article here.