Dropping the Anchors / by David Sherwin

The first time I flew on an airplane was the first time I realized that people die.

We were a third of the way towards a fuzzy destination — it might have been Denver, or Atlanta, or one of those hub cities that you travel through in order to actually reach your final destination. As I sat and ate my apple sauce from the airplane-provided kid's meal, I asked myself with my three-year-old brain, "What would happen if the plane crashed?" Wailing and gnashed teeth ensued from that moment onwards.

Like most formative experiences, this decisive moment led me to hate flying on any sort of airplane, although statistics would bear out that driving my car down the street to pick up some organic gelato in Wallingford would lead to a much higher risk of being in an accident.

It's taken a good bit of active reframing to shake off the fear, kick back, and read a good book or two instead of freaking out. Last year, the fear came back unabated when flying back from Japan, due to freakish turbulence that seemed to defy the laws of physics and felt like it would snap the plane in two, Lost-style. But considering that half the plane was full of adults crying out in fear and openly weeping, I don't feel like quite the child that I was thirty-odd years ago. And since then, cross-country flights have been aces.

Flying is not the only item on my short list of major dislikes. I've been working hard to overcome my distaste towards condiments. (So far, I've relented on ketchup, barbecue sauce, and balsamic vinaigrette.) For most of my youth, I was afraid of heights. (Learning to rock climb scratched that one off the list.) Soft cheeses no longer scare me as well, though blue cheese is still gross.

As I've reflected on these dislikes, I've become more aware of how my emotions are related to anchors from my past.


If we're going to talk psychology, there are two specific types of anchors — though you could argue that they are somewhat related.

One of them is associated with classical conditioning  — meaning that something that we sense evokes a moment in the past, for good or for bad, whether we're consciously aware of it or not. My moment of terror many decades ago led me to associate the process of flight with death, even though a rational mind would be able to untangle such a scenario quickly. Other irrational fears, such as receiving a dog bite from an upset pet would mean that all dogs are snarling angry beasts, often have their root in the same anchoring behavior. Over time, we teach ourselves out of these fears... or fall sway to them, leaving them unquestioned.

Another example from my youth. Our family went out to see an Orioles night game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It was a hot and humid August evening punctuated by the glare of sodium lights, sitting on wood bleacher seats, the waft roasted peanuts washing over the rowdy crowd. I saw my father buy a light-colored foamy beverage from a vendor whose suspenders were studded with buttons. Curious, I asked my father for a sip.

That first memory of beer stays with me to this very day. I can't remember if my father offered it to me grudgingly after a mild tantrum, or willingly just to shock my taste buds. But it had its effect, and I swore off the stuff for most of my youth and college years.

Nowadays, I no longer consider beer to be part of that same category as rubbing alcohol — disgusting liquid substance that must be spat out before swallowing — but that first anchor did its intended job of swearing me off the stuff. I feel sad for the poor kids who, instead of being given a single taste, were forced to drink a whole six-pack. Feeling the effects of intoxication at such a young age would leave an entirely different anchor, much like trying to swear a child off from smoking by making them burn through a whole carton of cigarettes — only to discover that their brain chemistry has been fundamentally altered and they're prime for becoming addicts.

In short, this first type of anchoring is the root cause of many neuroses and cultural behaviors that seem, on the surface, to defy any measure of logic or reason. It's also what often spills out of people when you're fulfilling design research or placing a design in front of a person and asking for feedback. Without a willful suspension of your own biases and anchors from your life, you don't recognize other people's network of ad-hoc associations and deviations from reality. And when you see the same behavior repeated over and over again, you start to confront how easy it really is to bend the human psyche towards somewhat arbitrary actions.

Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi? Your initial preference may be due to that first commercial you saw while sitting in a baby seat, whether you're conscious of that experience or not. "You just like the taste better" is only a facet of your preference.

Do you bring your own mug to a coffee shop or just compost or recycle each latte cup and lid? Seemingly simple choices, which point towards clear societal benefits, are often freighted with unusual baggage. In this case, some people choose not to use their own mug for morning coffee because they've always resented having to wash the dishes from their early youth — even when they recognize the benefits of using your own mug if you enjoy more than 150 coffee drinks a year. World problems suffer at the hands of these kinds of personal biases.

Confronting these latent biases within our design work is also part of the reason why I'm so adamant towards the inclusion of research or testing, in some form, throughout any major design project — whether it's design research, informal usability testing, or rapid beta testing or iteration with a real set of users.

While we can't account for every one of the extreme outliers of human behavior, we must be aware of the major biases that undergird the behavior of hundreds of millions of people. We may be so in tune with those biases, we may not even recognize them until we confront them through observation, then our own active reflection.

The more complex the design project we're taking on, the more likely we'll miss one of these major biases — especially because people actively deny their existence if they fear being judged or put their personal needs beyond apparent societal needs. Who wants to let people know that they often drop those tiny plastic six-pack rings into the ocean to choke baby seals and penguins while they're out cruising in their boat drunk because that's what keeps them sane after a long week pulling overtime in the plastic factory making fancy shower curtains for New York boutiques?


The second type of anchoring is a cognitive bias that comes to pass when people latch onto a piece of information related to an event, then use that information to try and predict a future outcome. This "focusing illusion" then causes a major error in perception. In a sense, people grab hold onto a single piece of data and use it as a baseline for future decisions.

In the book Why We Make Mistakes by Joseph T. Hallinan, he shares a story about how a group of amateurs were pitted against a group of real estate experts in valuing a set of properties that were being put up for sale in Tucson, Arizona. Each person involved in the study was given a ten-page packet of information related to a house on the market, and were free to look around the house and the neighborhood. When they were done with their research, the study participants were asked to generate their estimated selling price of the home.

There was very little deviation in the prices determined by the expert and amateur real estate mavens. But the estimates of both groups were significantly biased, as both groups had been provided in the beginning of the study with an initial listing price:

"The listing price is, essentially, the opening offer in a negotiation: it is the point around which future bargaining is anchored… he who makes the first offer gets the better outcome."

In short, once we're provided with a piece of information, it is used subconsciously as a relative metric of value. As Hallinan says,

"even the real estate professionals were taken in… During questioning at the end of the experiment, the real estate agents 'flatly denied their use of listing price as a consideration.' Yet, when the researchers examined the real estate agents' decision checklists, they found the opposite to be true."

No matter whether you work in design, marketing, or even making little baby caps for sale on Etsy, this is troubling news. First impressions matter far more than anyone would like to admit. From my point of view, there are billion ways this impacts our efficacy as designers. When interviewing people for our design projects, we have to be careful not to introduce any critical piece of information before they bring it up — otherwise, they'll anchor on what we say and use it as a point of reference. When we present design work to clients, the first thing we show them will count as the baseline for all future ideas shared with them — the bar is literally set.

The list here of possible effects could go on forever. I'd also argue here that the more delight you feel in the first encounter with any brand or product, the more forgiveness you've earned if something were to go wrong along the way.

How can you combat anchoring effects?

Cognitive therapy can help us work through the big anchors that cause live-choking fears. Meditation can help dredge up those key moments, to be observed and reflected upon without fear.

The smaller anchoring effects are much harder to manage. Examining all of the data at hand can help to smooth out our decisions. Another method is to actively reframe a decision based on different valuation methods — i.e. instead of saying that you'll pay $10,000 for a used car, imagine that you want to pay 10¢ a mile for the investment. Doing so makes you focus on different aspects of what a product or service is actually worth.


With some effort, I'm now on my fortieth impression of how safe flying can actually be. And here I am, writing this on an airplane in my notebook, no less! I'm sure I'll be working to overcome my fear of flying for the rest of my life. But just being aware of the struggle gives me some comfort.