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The Anchoring Effect

By: , Posted on: September 29, 2014

This blog post presents a second example of priming known generally as the Anchoring Effect. On page 156 of my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, I comment as follows:

Tversky and Kahneman (1974) described the anchoring heuristic as a cognitive bias that occurs when people unconsciously rely too heavily on one piece of information when making a decision.For example, information presented first tends to modify how we react to, can anchor, subsequent information more than we are aware of. Information presented first creates a background/context against which subsequent information is evaluated. This causes the background information to have more influence than if other information were presented first. For example, initially knowing the mileage of a used car before anything else may prejudice the customer’s opinion more than if that was the last thing learned about the car. Extreme events can also anchor subsequent judgments. For example, knowing that one’s grandfather lived to be 100 despite heavy smoking can result in underestimating the health risks of smoking.

I also presented the following example of an anchoring effect.

Kahneman (2011, p. 123) demonstrated that people’s estimates can be biased, anchored, by providing them with a reference number. Consider the following example where participants were asked: 

‘Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1200 feet?’

‘What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?’

Other participants were asked:

‘Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 180 feet?’

‘What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?’

Participants gave higher estimates in the first case and lower estimates in the second case.

The anchoring effect is an extension of Helson’s (1948) General Adaptation Level Theory. Helson began his work in the field of psychophysics where participants had to judge how heavy objects were. He found that first lifting a light object made lifting a subsequent object appear heavier. He also found that first lifting a heavy object made lifting a subsequent object appear lighter. In short, the experience of lifting the first object provided a frame of reference that primed how lifting the second object was experienced. Helson (1964) subsequently generalized his findings to attitude formation and social behavior.

On page 165 of my book I presented the following explanation of the anchoring effect that puzzled Kahneman before he discovered the causative role played by priming.

Kahneman (2011) prefaced his partial review of the priming literature with sections entitled ‘The Marvels of Priming’ (pp. 52–4) and ‘Primes That Guide Us’ (pp. 55–8). He explained the anchoring heuristic in terms of suggestion which he further explained in terms of priming: ‘The puzzle that defeated us is now solved, because the concept of suggestion is no longer obscure: suggestion is a priming effect, which selectively evokes compatible evidence’ (p. 122). This statement is of great relevance to the proposed Bio↔Psychology Network Theory because it establishes an explanatory chain. The well-replicated empirically supported anchoring heuristic is explained by suggestion which is explained by priming which is explained by the physical processes of: (a) network cascade; and (b) experience-dependent plasticity mechanisms (see Principle 2 below). This is the longest explanatory chain that the Bio↔Psychology Network Theory presently has to offer. It also serves as a model of how all psychological explanations should be framed (bold font in the original).

I now provide a general network explanation of priming presented on page 228 of my book.

The initial, often subliminal, stimulation automatically and unconsciously spreads, i.e., cascades, across the network (Principle 1). This processing alters the properties of the pathways taken via the experience-dependent plasticity process (Principle 2). The resulting changes biologically strengthen the connections crossed during the activation cascade, thereby increasing the likelihood that subsequent subliminal and/or supraliminal stimuli will follow this pathway through the network.

I continue this discussion of priming by considering affective priming in my next blog post.

About the Author

Warren Tryon at Lake Louise
We continue our tour of Dr. Tryon’s whereabouts! Here is is at the beautiful Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.

Warren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy. In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

Cognitive Neuroscience and PsychotherapyHis academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is


Helson, H. (1948). Adaptation-level as a basis for a quantitative theory of frames of reference. Psychological Review, 55(6), 297–313.

Helson, H. (1964). Adaptation-level theory: An experimental and systematic approach to behavior. New York: Harper & Row.Kahneman, D. (2011b). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Tryon, W. W. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience and psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124–1130.

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage located at

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