Human Error Series – How to Exploit Biases and Defend Against Manipulation
This series was suggested by a member of /r/socialengineering, and upon reading his request it struck me that though many resources detail methods of manipulation that exploit these biases in one way or another, no author has aimed to explain how to exploit each individually and shown how to defend oneself against these biases. Further, we’re expected to be aware of which of the many biases are taking place and are being exploited at any given time, which requires a more detailed knowledge of the fundamental nature of these biases.
By explaining these biases and analyzing their place in hypothetical situations and how they could be abused, seen from the perspective of a social engineer, I hope to
- Teach you a more fundamental understanding of human behavior and cognition.
- inspire you to use your own creativity and imagination to approach the subject of applied social psychology.
- Allow you to see situations in a different light and be more adaptable in dealing with them.
- Raise awareness and shed light on what is happening in your own mind when these biases are being turned against you by others.
Sociality and social interaction is an interplay of all manner of manipulations and influences, and what is apparent is not often what is actual. What you think is happening might not be as it seems, and might actually be a part of the game other people, and even your own brain, are playing with your mind.
Important: This is about the cognitive bias known as anchoring, also known as focalism. For the neural-emotional rewriting technique originating from NLP and used in social engineering, click here. For the self-help version of that technique, click here.
Disclaimer: Most examples are written from the POV of a male protagonist, because most of my audience and most of my clients are men. Do bear in mind: if experience teaches me anything, women are, on average, better natural social engineers by far. And ladies, if you think my saying this is just a cheap ploy to appease you, then learn to take a compliment.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that causes preference for the first bit of information (the anchor) that is provided to the judge in a decision-making process. The anchor becomes the basis of subsequent valuation of other information and so the core determinant in the decision-making process.
It is strongly related to and amplified by the primacy effect, which states the first and last pieces of information are most easily remembered and recalled, giving the first piece of information provided an even bigger impact.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning that anchoring is at the core of most negotiation tactics (including auctions, bargaining, and car- and house-salesmanship), as well as the reason why first impressions are both so crucial in any social situation and so hard to correct once given off. As we’ll see later, the anchoring effect is an incredibly powerful tool in influencing and manipulating people (and makes flipnosis childishly simple to pull off in any situation), and one that cannot easily be defended against even with full knowledge of the manipulation type being used, no matter how skilled the defendant.
Key Takeaway: If framing is the body of influence and persuasion, anchoring is its heart.
The focusing effect is the underlying foundation of anchoring, and it causes one to focus too much on one aspect of an event or piece of information, thereby causing overestimation of the importance of that element and therewith causing over- or underestimation of the utility of a given outcome in a decision-making event.
Example: We ask a number of people whether they believe people living in the Netherlands are on average more or less happy than people living in Spain. People will generally get a salient image of sunny weather and celebration when thinking of Spain, and a feeling of sobriety and poor climate when imagining life in the Netherlands. They will generally conclude that Spanish people must on average be happier. (Comparing Californians to Midwesterners might be a more relatable example for Americans, and would be a good analogy.)
However, the weather actually has a very marginal effect on people’s average levels of happiness compared to more routine and day-to-day examples of crime and levels of unemployment, and indeed, Dutchmen on average tend to be more content than residents of Spain. People focus on a salient piece of information (the weather) when really that element is not all that important.
The halo-effect (and the converse effect known as the horn-effect) is another bias that relies heavily on the focusing-effect. People tend to initially notice whether or not a person has a salient “good” trait (like beauty, wealth), and focus in on that salient detail when judging the character of that person, assuming that this salient “good” trait necessarily requires their being a good person and thus having all manner of other good traits (e.g. intelligence).
Example: A girl of stunning beauty walks into a bar, and you spot her from across the room. Immediately, you assume that she must also have a stunning personality. You approach her and ask for her name, and when she composes her face into a forced smile and reluctantly stammers “Jolene,” you realize just how shallow your initial judgment of her was.
Indeed, most of love-at-first-sight (or at-first-conversation, or what-have-you) is caused and kept alive by these initial biases, and most relationships get built on these superficialities until either they end horribly or you work out that your spouse’s actual traits (rather than the ones you assume them to have) are actually as good as your assumptions, or at least agreeable.
Key Takeaway: Don’t be unattractive, or at least have another salient good trait to compensate.
Why is this effect useful, and why does it work the way it does?
First, it’s important to get a decent understanding of what is going on when you are anchoring that first piece of information, and why (for your brain) it is a fundamentally useful thing to do. There are three major theoretical explanations for what is happening, and though they all need to be supplemented in some way to be complete and thorough, they at least explain the underlying principles well enough to be useful building blocks for successful social techniques:
- The use of adjustment heuristics, or anchoring-and-adjusting.
- Selective accessibility, or the evaluation of the anchor by the judge to determine whether or not the anchor is a suitable answer, and, if not, using the relevant and suitable attributes of that ancbor when judging new answers.
- The Attitude change theory, which states that the attitude of the judge is molded by the initial anchor and so the judge will more favorably view new answers that share attributes with that anchor.
These explanations all overlap to some degree, and with some additional adjustments they can be made into very thorough explanations of why anchoring is such a powerful and robust bias.
The first explanation goes a long way towards explaining why our eventual answer is so heavily decided by our initial answer (the anchor).
Example from an actual study: Researchers asked a number of individuals whether they thought Mahatma Gandhi died either before or after age 9, or before or after the age of 140. Clearly, neither of these answers can be correct, but these initial answers now serve as an anchor. Then, the participants were asked to guess what his actual age at the time of death was. On average, the first group (with an anchor of 9-years old) guessed an average age of 50, and the second group (with an anchor of 140-years old) answered on average an age of 67.
Clearly, the anchor affected the answer in a major way, despite obviously being wrong. They took the initial ages (9 and 140, respectively), and then adjusted their answers from there. Other studies confirmed this effect, and others still also tried to eliminate the effect of the anchor entirely by explicitly stating that the anchor effect would be affecting their judgment. Regardless of whether the statement about what anchoring would do was correct (i.e. whether it was said that they would be guessing too high, or instead too low), they were still affected by the anchor effect in much the same way. Even when offered monetary incentives to further put their attention to the fact that they would be guessing incorrectly, they would still be unable to effectively adjust from the anchor.
Key Takeaway: The anchoring effect is present even when targets are made aware of its influence, and they are unable to defend against it in any meaningful capacity.
This first explanation only explains anchoring for situations where the initial answer is clearly impossible. So, let’s now turn our attention to selective accessibility. What if the initial answer is already partly suitable?
Consider the following: You go to a used car dealership, and you see a beautiful car which, unfortunately, is just outside of your budget. It is on sale for $5000, but your budget only allows you to go up to $4000 – spend any more than that, and you and your significant other might be in for a significant argument. The car salesman is open to negotiate, and after some bargaining and back-and-forth bidding and rebidding you settle on a $4150 price. Content, not only with your purchase but also the approval of your spouse, you drive your new ride home with a big smile cheek-to-cheek.
However, the last laugh will most certainly be had by your friendly neighborhood car salesman – the car was barely worth over $2000. So what happened?
The anchor was a $5000 price tag. Every bid you and the car salesman bid was bound to be way out of range of the actual value of that car, even when you went significantly lower than this anchor (e.g. $3500). Because the salient piece of information was that $5000 tag, every bid you could have made was going to have you overbid, and so, no matter how proud you were of your own negotiation efforts, you were really only going to be able to cut some of your losses.
In other words: You’ve used the relevant attribute of the anchor (its proximity to what an actual used car would cost) to judge your next answers (up until the settlement at $4150), until it was sufficiently suitable. You didn’t take into account that the answer could have been completely unsuitable to start with.
Key Takeaway: A suitable answer is not necessarily the a correct answer.
However, I want to provide a counterpoint to this explanation in its general form.
The judge will consider the anchor, see how relevant it is, and whether or not it is a suitable answer. The judge takes the relevant attributes (is it fitting?, and how fitting is it?) and use those to determine his next guess. This (according to the anchoring Wikipedia page, though uncited) assumes that the judge finds the answer plausible so that it is not immediately rejected.
Rather, I speculate, the judge considers how close the anchor is to being plausible and what it would take to make the anchor plausible. This explains why the anchor has an impact on the judge’s estimates regardless of whether or not it is plausible to begin with, and thus explains both situations where there is a plausible or an implausible anchor.
The attitude change theory matches up quite nicely with this conjecture, as it states that the attitude of the judge itself is changed through the anchor, by feeding it with relevant attributes. Additionally, this would be more in line with the concept of framing and how it can be used as basis for reframing.
We’ll get into framing more extensively in the how section of this article, but before we do so, there is one more thing you need to know. In negotiation, the initial anchor raises natural boundaries which cause it to influence the eventual settlement more than the subsequent alterations (rebidding) to that anchor. Meaning, in our previous example, that starting from the anchor will force the bidding around the anchor. Going down to $3000 is no problem if your starting bid (anchor) is $3500, but it is a problem if the starting anchor is significantly higher (e.g. $5000). This second bid will have little impact and will not force rebidding by the salesman, as he can (rightfully so) point out how absurd a margin that change is.
So, make sure that the starting position is known and accepted by both parties before making such a bid. If necessary, point out the fact that the $5000 anchor is not a sane anchor, and do so explicitly, so that the bidding can start significantly lower. Otherwise, both parties will be wasting their time.
Key takeaway: If you want to negotiate competently, negotiate from a good starting position.
In conclusion, this is why the anchoring effect is so important and so core to almost all persuasion and view-change:
- The anchor has the most influence of any factor in a decision-making process, and so decides most of the outcome of any persuasion and negotiation effort.
- The anchor is the why of first impressions, so it is need-to-know when bettering your own self-presentation and, more generally, your social skills.
- Since the anchor decides the entire frame that a person will be using in decision-making and negotiation, knowing how to create anchors and insert new anchors to lead the conversation is a crucial skill that has importance beyond what is humanly possible to stress.
This article will be considerably longer than those on most of the other biases precisely because anchoring is core to practically everything that is taught to social engineers and those in need of better social skills. Everything from making first impressions to suggestion to full-blown gaslighting (specifically, the reframing used over extensive periods of time of indoctrination) is influenced by anchors, and creating and using the right anchors decides your rate of success in any social effort to a large degree.
Usage 1 – Spotting anchors that have been created is instrumental in reworking first impressions:
Example: You join a party at a friend’s house (let’s call him Ben), and you do not know anyone else there. The first minute in, before you had a chance to introduce yourself you get an important text message that requires you to spend the first fifteen minutes (which are instrumental in making good first impressions) to tend to a situation, by frantically searching for a solution by googling on your phone. Being so caught in the moment, you ignore most of the people that talk at or to you, and when Ben asks you half-way through your search whether or not everything is fine, you frantically gesture him away in an attempt to preserve your focus before all hope of a quick resolution is lost.
You’ve just established that you’re stressed, dismissive (of Ben), and interested primarily for what’s on your phone while really you should be present at that party. Though Ben will understand, his other friends may not, even if he calms their nerves by telling them “It must be important, don’t mind him.”
Now, even if you manage not to be embarrassed by your own behavior and calmly introduce yourself to his friends afterwards, after letting out an appropriate sigh of relief when the problem is resolved, there is still a lot of damage done that might influence their treatment and perception of you.
Knowing this, you can start off by explaining the problem, making an empathetic apology and raise sympathy for your crisis, preferably in a light-hearted way. (Which could turn into full-blown flipnosis.) In doing so, you make it clear that you would not have behaved so unlike yourself were it not incredibly important. Really, you’re as unfortunate as them to have suffered your own behavior.
E.g.: “Oh God. Sorry guys, the missus just texted me to say that the ticket order didn’t go through. I messed up the billing info. And, since they’re sold out I had to find a way to buy them online before midnight or our monthly night out would’ve been ruined. sigh Really, though, this is why us men shouldn’t be left in charge of important purchases. chuckle Or planning.” makes introduction
The valence of your initial affront (i.e. your own inappropriate behavior) is being called into question, and so is the agent (you), because they now (if all went well) sympathize with your situation and know that you regret it as much as they do. By now making an open and cheerful introduction you have removed their stressor (their perception of you) and added in a positive stimulus (cheer), and they’ll like you all the more for it. (Which is what flipnosis is based around: Simplicity (of the situation), Perceived Self-Interest (your befriending them, and resolving their stress), incongruity (first being stressed because of something external, but being friendly towards them), confidence (in your explanation) and empathy (understanding their plight when you give off that impression).)
Usage 2 – Creating the right anchors can be done in a variety of ways, but whatever way you choose, you can plan them to match exactly the impression that you want them to have:
An example using the halo-effect and a signature/handle: It’s the start of a new year, a new grade at your school, and you want to convey the idea that you’re an open person to your class, as to evoke more trust and become more likeable. By unbuttoning the top two buttons of your slim-fit navy-blue blouse and rolling up your sleeves, you match your appearance to this persona (congruity), and your signature for this pretext will be that you open your introduction to each individual person with a random, on-the-spot compliment, using sincerity. At the entrance to your class-room for that first hour, you spot a group of two girls and one guy, and one of the girls has a salient combination of white jeans and a cyan blouse. You walk up to her, you lock eyes and the following conversation ensues:
You: *smiling*“Excuse me, but is this the classroom of 2D?”
First girl: “Yeah, I think so.”
You: “Psychology basic then, right?”
First girl: “Should be, yeah.”
You: “Guess that makes us four colleagues now. *chuckles* I’m Jack. *extends hand*”
First girl: “Guess so. *chuckles* I’m Lana. *shakes hands*”
You: “Lana. *turns to others* I take it you have names as well?”
Second girl: “Sarah. *shakes hands*”
You: “Sarah. *turns to last* And you?”
Girl: *shakes hands* “Jason.”
You: “Jason. Pleasure. *turns to Lana*”
You: “By the way, Lana, that combination gestures her clothes really brings out your eyes. *chuckles* Cheerful combination, too, not many can pull that off.”
Lana: “Wow, thanks. *smiles*”
You: “*turns to Jason* Not to say that you aren’t sharply dressed. I’ve been looking all over for a pair of black jeans as nice as those. Sad to say I haven’t been able to find them. Where’d you get them?”
Jason: “Chasin’ Denim, down-town.”
You: “Cheers. I’ll be sure to remember that. *turns to face all* Seems like class is starting. Well, Lana, Sarah, Jason – it’s a pleasure, and I’m happy to know I’ll be seeing more of you. Bye for now.”
Note: This will still work if your name is not, in fact, Jake, and even if you’re not part of the gender to which this name is commonly given.
- Your anchor is the image of a person who is open. Everything they will now think of you is built around that idea until sufficient conflicting information is gathered. Your signature is of being complimentary, which is a salient detail feeding into that anchor.
- You’ve shown you want to make an effort to remember their names and addressing them by their names twice (side-note: around three times is optimal for any given interaction), by repeating their introduction (showing that you want to memorize it and that you’ve heard them, and heard them correctly), and later when you say good-bye (solidifying the idea that you want to remember them).
- Complimenting them shows you’ve noticed something about them that is not immediately superficial. Furthermore, few people actually give compliments upon noticing something, which adds a degree of perceived confidence and openness in and of itself. By keeping the compliments as natural, as brief and as subtle as possible, people will not feel like you’re trying to appease them, but rather that it is a natural thing for you to say.
Compare, for instance, the following compliment (strongly exaggerated for rhetorical reasons):
“My my, Lana, that combination is striking. Where ever did you buy those stunning clothes? It looks amazing on you!”
A casual pointing out or passing comment in the way of “Hmm, that’s an interesting combination. Looks nice. Very lively.” Is much more effective when you’ve not established enough rapport to appeal to her more inner personality traits. I will go more into this when I write-up a blueprint for thinking up appropriate compliments and how to properly use them. Just to clarify, however, if she is very into fashion (which you might learn at a later time, preferably not from her), you can remark something along the lines of “I figured as much. You have particular style to you that’s very… personal. It’s very you, if that makes sense, and it shows that you put great care into what you wear.”
Key Takeaway: Use compliments properly, and make them come across as genuine.
There are more things at play here (like “guess we’re colleagues” which is in-grouping), and ideally, you’d also want to take into account regular communication tactics and just generally behaving like an open person would do (i.e. being congruent).
Key Takeaway: Creating an anchor, and adding salience to that anchor, is essential to having people see you as you want them to see you.
Usage 3 – Anchoring can be used to sabotage first impressions or even established images, either your own or those of others.
Before I give an example, a key takeaway is that outlandish claims (Hitler called them, quite fittingly, big lies) are more easily remembered and believed, if repeated often enough or brought with apparent confidence and sincerity. A politician trying to demonize or reputation bomb another politician, or even another point of view that his opponent (or an opponent party) has, can more easily do so by making his claim extreme and very simple.
He might call a politician that is against the treatment of animals in the meat industry an ‘enemy of the lower-class’ who is ‘out to destroy jobs’ by raising the cost of producing meat, and conversely, the opponent might call him a ‘heartless killer’ and a ‘brute’ in return. Repeated often enough, these things stick, no matter how absurd or even untrue they may be.
Key Takeaway: Salience is more easily remembered than the plain, and very hard to marginalize or eliminate after it’s been presented.
Example: You are in the process of charming a certain lady-friend of yours while at a bar. A friend of a friend is called to join your table, an ex of another girl you know, and it seems that your lady-friend is also taking a liking to him. Instead of wanting to rely on your own innate charm, with full knowledge that this guy is your one and only real obstacle, and having a general lack of care for his social well-being (you heartless monster), you wait until this John (his name is actually John, mind you – this is important) excuses himself and, while he is on the bathroom, you turn to your Jane (not her actual name – just an example), and start your brief damning campaign:
“John’s a fun guy. Good company. Shame, the way it ended with Jennifer. You remember Jennifer, right? The girl in the blue jacket. You met her last week. Anyway, that’s the guy she was crying over. The one who cheated on her – twice. Never would’ve thought. Guess you can’t really know everything about a person just by looking at them, huh? He probably had his reasons but cheating… blegh.”
This is easier to sell when Jennifer does in fact have an ex that cheated on her twice, so that later, if it ever does comes out, or in the unlikely event she does ask him about it that evening, you can cop out by saying “Oh, wait. So Blake, this isn’t that ex of Jennifer? Wow, good, because I really like you, John, and I was wondering how a guy like you could do that. Glad I was wrong. I’m sorry!” No harm done.
In most normal circumstances, you have now established that you like the guy, and that you regret that you have to know about his cheating. This is very powerful, as you have not in any way established that you’re out to harm his reputation, and that you wish things weren’t as they are. You’ve also established that ‘you can’t really know a person just by looking at them,’ damaging the initial anchor (that he is nice) and allowing for easy replacement.
This detail is salient (as cheating is understandably a big deal to practically everyone) and, more importantly, she is unlikely to bring it up. (Because why would she ruin the mood and with it the evening for all involved?) Because of this, everything John now does will be corrupted by the negative anchor and because he doesn’t know that she has this piece of false information, he cannot do anything to disprove it. Focusing and confirmation bias will now take care of the rest.
You can’t be faulted for having ‘misheard’ information about John should it come out that you were ‘wrong,’ and neither can you be faulted for sharing that information, because it is something you’d naturally remark when talking about a person.
Key Takeaway: To sabotage first impressions or ruin reputations, one can best use salient details that are an affront to the target, and that are obscure enough that they cannot easily be disproved during normal interactions.
Usage 4 – Whatever impression you wish to give off, you can use flipnosis to solidify it by creating the inverse impression of what you want them to believe:
Remember one of our earlier examples, where we resolved the tension that our bad first impression left (because we were seen as uninterested or dismissive), and made room for an impression that was positive? Flipnosis is the technique of using a negative event, impression or attitude to create within the target a buffer (mental resistance) against negative emotions, then dissolving that buffer to double the positive impact of whatever result you actually want to achieve. Using anchors, this is made trivially easy.
Remember that people will tend to personalize behavior of others, meaning they will think your behavior is directed at them personally or specifically caused by them in some way.
Key Takeaway: People tend to falsely attribute the negative behavior of others to something they personally are responsible for, and thus might experience negative emotions as a result of any negative behavior.
Paradoxically, people tend to value information more strongly if it refutes another piece of information that they believed beforehand, no matter how true or false either those pieces of information are. This has to be done quickly, though, before their initial belief is rooted too deeply to be immediately refuted.
This can be used to great effect by implying a claim about reality (through behavior, appearance, by omission, or outright deceit) without specifically or explicitly supporting that claim. (It can also be done explicitly, which in some situations can be very effective, and lead to what I call a fragile anchor – more on that in a bit.)
The first example we’ve already had, with the only difference now being that you’d do the same thing (acting stressed but then becoming happy upon introducing yourself) with intent.
A second example: You tend to go out well-dressed and groomed, as it elicits positive reactions from the elderly, most middle-aged people and most decent younglings. This has the drawback of not ‘fitting in’ with most street youth, bar-types and such. Generally, they will see you as too ‘other’ and take offense to your manners, propriety, and such.
You use this disadvantage to your advantage using flipnoaia when walking out on the street at midnight, and seeing some thugs walking in your general direction. You can see them whispering amongst themselves, and if you’re not careful, this might end up leading into a very unpleasant situation. In their heads, they’re already preparing for the generic “What’s your problem, man? Got lost?” shtick that they are used to, hoping to get a fight out of you. They know you’re going to either cowardly say nothing, or challenge them. Either way, they’ll win, be it with laughter at having upset you (and that bullying might take a while if they decide to follow you) or a fight (that odds are they’ll win). Unphased by their looks and mannerisms as they come closer, you raise your hand and point at them, moving your hand side to side in a “you all”-type gesture.
“Question. Do any of you know where to get some good bud this time of night?”
They know you’re going to say nothing. They know you’re going to challenge them. They know you don’t know anything about their culture or lifestyle. They know you’re posh scum. They know you’ll be as angry and hostile as they are. All of a sudden, they know nothing. The power of confusion.
They suddenly need to process new information that doesn’t at all fit in their own frame of reference. This means they have to create a new frame. And, because the anger they built up does not belong in that frame, they get a sense of relief that all but completely prevents them from becoming angry again, at least for that specific moment. By unphasedly propositioning them for drugs, or a cigarette, or simply by asking them for access to or information on anything remotely important in their culture, you’ve shook their frame and created a common frame where there is no strong, pent-up emotion or anticipation. Things need to be dealt with acutely in a brand-new way. This prevents them from doing anything else but work out a fitting way to resolve that dissonance.
In a similar situation, when you’ve joinied friends for a night out with some of their other friends, building and resolving a tension by creating an assumption (‘he obviously doesn’t like football,’ ‘he doesn’t belong in the stoner culture,’ etc.) and then showing behavior completely contradictory to that assumption (e.g. by informing them that the defending team has a weak back-line formation that clearly needs adjusting – no idea if that even makes any sense, which is why I don’t rely on my football knowledge for flipnosis) builds rapport incredibly fast.
Key Takeaway: Creating an anchor or shaking up an existing anchor allows for a moment of confusion in which the target is suggestible and easily accepts new anchors.
Usage 5 – Creating a fragile anchor to create positive or negative tension:
An example of my creating a fragile anchor: Last week, I wanted to verify whether a certain person had a romantic interest in me, as well as stir up a bit of excitement in the conversation, which I love to do. Because overtly asking can be damaging to my relationship with said girl and embarrassing to the target, instead I opted for the tried and tested “But I’m gay.” shtick that works so well for so many reasons. When asked if I had an interest in any particular girl at this time, I replied: “I hope not. That would create an awkward situation, considering I’m gay.” When people’s eyes started opening in surprise or their face composed into expression of disbelief, I immediately asked, “What? Isn’t it obvious? The clothes, the mannerisms… I mean, you didn’t seriously think I’d be this gay without actually being gay, right?”
By this time, of course, the girl in question, panicking, asked me the question, “But what about that girl you talked about? You said you’d just broken up with her.” My suspicion confirmed, I couldn’t immediately retract what I had just said, because that would’ve been absolutely no fun at all. Instead, I asked, rhetorically: “And that’d be the first time ever a gay guy was in a relationship with a girl for social reasons, right? Why do you think the relationship ended in disaster? Besides, there are many other reasons why I wanted to be in that relationship.” After a long spiel about how I used the relationship to tried to help her coach with her borderline (this part was true, gay or not), she was defeated. Then, with all the stoicism I could muster (which is a fair bit), I concluded, “Or, I could be making all of this up completely,” and as her face turned to show a mixture of pleasant confusion and curiosity, I ended with another rhetorical question, “But why the hell would I do that?”
Now, as for the ‘many reasons’ why being able to competently pass yourself off as inconspicuously gay can greatly benefit you, I could write an entire essay on that, and I might at some point. Core benefits: You’re not a threat, and though you are clearly not ‘conquerable,’ women will still want to conquer you.
The situation itself relies on disturbing a de facto assumption, or one that has been purposely created, by creating a second assumption that is also plausible, and cannot be immediately rejected. If accepted, doubt is then casted on the validity of both of these claims, but since they are inherently contradictory, there is dissonance which cannot be resolved.
In the right circumstances, this can create an intrigue that keeps whatever the claim is about (in this case me) present in the mind of whoever is now judging these two claims. As I mentioned in Human Error I, people have a fundamental aversion for uncertainty, and will look to resolve it as best they can, and will generally not stop considering the issue until resolve in some manner has taken place.
Whether the uncertainty creates negative tension (stress) rather than positive tension is largely dependent on the context and content of the dilemma, and what the resolution means to the target.
In my example, the fact that she has more reason to believe the fact that I’m not gay promotes a positive outlook and curiosity. However, it is possible that this might swing the other way at some point, depending on how she deals with the dilemma internally.
However, stress can be useful to create as well. Remember the earlier example where we made John out to be a cheater? Using suggestion, we can even instill doubt about a certain claim without ever making it out like we’re the ones making the claim!
Example: ”I would understand if you were having doubts about John. I mean, what could he have done to upset Jennifer that severely?”
That line is enough to have Jane investigate any reason to mistrust John and find one that is an actual concern, and it didn’t require you to claim anything.
Then, Jane responds with “I just don’t know why she’d have been so upset, unless…”
“You don’t think he cheated on her or anything, do you?”
“No – I mean, well… I don’t know what to think.”
See how easily the suggestion is planted that John might have cheated? Who knows what Jane was going to say? Now, all that she’s thinking about is whether or not John has cheated. And because it can’t be resolved, she can’t stop using it as an anchor. Additionally, to her, it will feel like it was her own idea, and factually, you never said anything to incriminate John directly, so it makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t believe it was anyone’s idea but hers. That’s suggestion, and it can be deadly and damning.
Key Takeaway: Abusing our innate fundamental aversion to uncertainty and using clever suggestion, we can install a doubt and tension in a target that cannot be resolved but will remain at the back of the target’s mind.
Usage 6 – Anchoring can be used for any type of negotiation or to influence any decision:
In Human Error I, we used the ambiguity principle to cast doubt or remove doubt from a target’s mental equation. This time, we are going to decide the entire frame from which probability is going to be measured. We’re going to change the source rather than divert the river.
Firstly, changing the frame is going to have immediate benefits when creating our own anchor, because it will
- 1) change the starting point from which the options will be valued, and
- 2) primarily in negotiations, change the boundaries/outer limits of the values which one can comfortably assign in value judgments, to be used in the decision making process.
Example illustrating 1): A friend of yours, Martha, is having a problem in her relationship (e.g. an argument about whether or not it’s time to move in together with her boyfriend), which is causing her a reasonable amount of stress, and she comes to you for help. With the intent of having her mentally overstate her own problems, you tell her, “Well, before we find out how we’ll go about solving this, the first question you need to ask yourself: ‘am I getting more energy from this relationship than it is costing me?’”
On its own, this might seem innocuous enough, and is generally good advice to give to Martha in that situation, and generally is also what one would answer in any relationship crisis. Because, given that she might conclude that ‘Yes, it is definitely worth it,’ this would only help her to confirm that she does want this relationship and that this isn’t so bad, right? Yes, but more important to you is the fact that she has just anchored the exact value where the relationship is longer worth the energy put in.
Because that value is the anchor, and she will adjust from that anchor, this question, even if asked because of genuine concern, is always damaging, as it makes her problem larger than it has to be.
Second example illustrating 1): You’re a salesman for an electronics company, called Supplier Z. You want to convince a buyer that choosing printer X from supplier Z is a better idea than printer Y from the same supplier, even if it is more expensive. Knowing of the power of framing and wanting to create a sufficiently salient anchor that’ll lead to choosing printer Y over printer X.
Now, product X has attributes 1, 2, and 3, and product Y has qualities 1, 2, and 4. Quality 3 is product X’s lower cost. Suppose that quality 4 in this case is Product Z’s easy-of-use. So, after your mutual introductions, you open like this:
You: “Now, as I understand it, you are looking for a batch of printers for your office? Could you tell me more about what kind of printer you’re looking for?”
Client: “Well, we’re looking to buy a cheap set of printers that we can put in every office, and we need a combination inktjet and laser.”
You: “Okay, good, we have various suitable options available. Can I ask how many, and how much is your budget?”
Client: “38 printers, and we’d just like to keep our expenses as low as possible.”
Having established that the buyer’s main priority is budget – for now – you will try to reframe this so we can anchor ease-of-use.
You: “Okay, I understand. Let me ask a few more follow-up questions while I narrow the search, okay?”
You: “Is there anything specific – special cartridges or ink, special paper, that you’d want these printers to be able to use.”
Client: “No, I don’t think we need anything in particular. Just a regular, no-fuzz set of printers would be perfect.”
This gives you an opening to agree and confirm the buyer’s preference, while suggesting that what he really wants is what you want him to want.
You: “So, if I understood correctly, your main priority is just ease of use? Good workflow? On the cheap?”
Client: “Yes, that’s right.”
You: “Okay, I have these two printers on offer. Printer X and printer Y. Both are real budget printers, printer X is a bit cheaper, but there’s one major drawback…”
You: “They’re known to require a lot more maintenance as the driver software can be kind of buggy. Now, if you have a good IT staff at hand, that might not be a problem, except for the occasional delay here and there, but…”
Client: “And how much do they cost?”
You: “Printer X is $129 each, Printer Y will cost you $169 each. Now, I’m not sure how much your time is worth, but that’s a $1600 expensive for what could save you a lot of lost time and frustration. And, they both come with the same 2-year guarantee.”
Client: “Yeah, I don’t think it’d be good for half the office having a hold-up every time a printer fails.”
Client: “Okay then, send us an in-voice for 38 units of Printer Y.”
From the moment you aligned the frame ‘cheap’ to include ‘ease-of-use’ (frame alignment), it felt natural for him to want to judge printers by their ease-of-use first. Even if he judged them by ease-of-use second, his primary anchor would’ve been ‘cheap,’ not ‘cheapest,’ and both printer types qualified as cheap, with only one qualifying as easy to use.
Now, any detail could be chosen and relevant wishes elicited, which could then be used to align his frame to your desired frame through suggestion. However, this example seemed quite intuitive, and comparatively short in terms of how much elicitation is needed. Generally, the more salient and relevant the anchor, the less that has to be said to place it.
Key Takeaway: Changing the focal point is another way to create a new anchor to be used in decision0making.
Now, an example of 2), changing the boundaries rather than the values: In same that situation as before with your friend, Martha, suppose you didn’t just tell her to ask herself whether or not the energy put in was worth it, but you followed it up by saying:
“Either way, you deserve to have time to think about moving in without all the pressure he’s putting on you. Look, he might just be upset and worried about what it means for your relationship if you’re not ready for it yet, I get that, but that doesn’t mean he has to push and push some more. That’s not going to help.
“Otherwise, he’s just trying to decide for you and manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do, without taking your feelings into consideration. Now, I don’t think he’s a bad guy, and I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, but like I said, either way you deserve time to space and if he can’t respect that, I think that says a lot more about this relationship than your not being ready to move in.
“Or, jeez, I don’t know, Martha. What do you think? Is he just upset?”
By creating this dichotomy, where you raise two valid interpretations of this situation, you are forcing Martha to keep her own judgment within these two boundaries. Either he is just upset and not taking Martha’s feelings into consideration, or he’s manipulative and doesn’t care what she’s feeling – or anything in between those two. Going outside of those boundaries is not something that seems intuitive or even reasonable at that point.
Key Takeaway: By creating seemingly intuitive boundaries, one can heavily constrain value judgments and perceptions, and through this guide and force decision making.
How to defend against anchoring:
Defending against these and other manipulations of anchors, and anchoring as a whole, is incredibly different. It is worth noting that:
- Even trained negotiators, though capable of appraising the value of an offer based on multiple characteristics, will still focus on only one salient aspect of that offer.
- Anchoring affects everyone, even people who are highly knowledgeable in a field.
- Though experts in a particular field might be more resistant to the anchoring effect in that field, they are still susceptible to it.
- Even when informed that anchoring is occurring, people will still be affected by it in equal measure to those who are not aware of this.
Because the application of anchoring can be so broad (as I hope I’ve shown – though mind you, 100s of other situations unfortunately must go unexplored for now), it is more important to be aware of how it is used rather than why or what for.
In general, anchoring will be used in one of three ways:
- 1. By creating an artificial constraint.
- 2. By creating an artificial starting point.
- 3. By changing the focus.
Defense Strategy 1 – Defending against artificial constraints:
To defend against artificial constraints, it is first and foremost necessary to be aware when there a constraint being put on a situation, offer or decision. As soon as you notice that there is one, challenge that constraint. Look for that third option, and that fourth option – change that spectrum of choices with bad on one end and worse on the other to a matrix with every option you can find and every option in between.
For example: Your spouse tells you: ‘I need you to be able to get along with my friends. Either you behave and enjoy yourself or you can find a new girlfriend.’
Ask yourself ‘why?’ Why would you need to get along with her friends? And if you were going to have to get along with them, why pretend to behave and enjoy yourself? Why would you even dignify that ultimatum with an answer? And rather than complying, or breaking up with her, or telling her “I don’t do ultimatums,” why isn’t there a fourth option where you discuss why she feels the need to force ultimatums, as if they in any way productive and healthy in a relationship?
Another example: When you and your friends are on a night out downtown, you come across another group of friends, who are clearly not your friends. Your best friend answers their taunts by threatening violence, and the situation is escalating. Your friends are not going to back down, and there’s no more holding them back or reasoning with them. You have a choice: Either you fight with them, or you chicken out and ruin your friendship forever.
Or do you? What’s stopping you from calling out the guys in the other group that are also on the fence, and asking them whether they agree with you that this fight is useless and that if the hot-heads want to fight, they can fight amongst themselves? What’s stopping you from telling your friend that you might be his friend, but that fights he willingly starts are his fights, and that he should stop being a jack-ass? He’s the poor friend after all, if he forces you into a fight you have no interest in being in, isn’t he?
’Did David intentionally mess up that exam or is he just lazy?’
Possibly neither, he might just not have been able to master the subject matter.
’Well, it is $5000 and worth every penny of it, but for you, I’ll make it $4150. Whadda-ya say?’
I say it’s probably worth around $2000 and I’d rather not waste anymore of my time talking to you if you think I’m that stupid.
Key Takeaway: There is no spoon.
Defense Strategy 2 – Defending against artificial starting points:
To ward against artificial starting points, or anchors, be sure to do these three things:
- 1) Don’t rely solely on first impressions or the information handed to you when deciding on a course of action. Double, triple, quadruple-check every possible avenue, and check for avenues you’ve missed. Be a cartographer of possibilities and information.
- 2) Under all possible circumstances, assume that the starting position (your own belief or the information provided) is wrong, find an alternative explanation, and try to support that. If that position fails to hold up, repeat this process.
- 3) Constantly be on the look-out for ways to challenge your own attitudes and beliefs, ways to refute them, and ways to expand them. Don’t reject facts that does fit, instead find ways to incorporate them. Don’t hold any conviction as sacred.
Example: A good friend of yours asks you for a loan for a company he wants to set up. His first bit of information will most likely be his pitch. Either his motivation, or your estimated return, or what-have-you. In this case, he promises you a 120% return within 10 years, saying the company will be profitable within the next three years. Assume that he is being genuine and that his initial calculations check out.
You are fully willing to give him that loan. However, assume that his claim is untrue, through no fault of his. Try to break down that claim. Ask him questions and point out flaws, then wait for his answers and corrections. Try to keep in mind that this is his anchor as well, and point out that he is also basing his decision to create this company and ask for this loan primarily based on this salient bit of information (that it seems profitable in numbers). Make him consider the information he’s missed, or hasn’t taken into consideration yet. (e.g. Are you capable, can you handle the stress, is the market volatile or not, is this what you want to be doing for the next 10 years, etc.?)
Another example: A trusted friend tells you that the boy you fancy, though being a nice guy as far as he can tell, has cheated on his previous girlfriend.
This is a trusted friend, and it would be unwise to question their integrity at every opportunity – at that point he wouldn’t be much of a trusted friend, would he? However, it is always possible to test the validity of his claims, particularly when it’s most important. Under a lot of similar circumstances people tend to ignore information, i.e. not check out that information at all, or disregard their friends’ claims and opinions entirely. Neither of these are particularly good ideas under most circumstances.
Key Takeaway: Information is all. Find it, analyze it, use it.
Defense Strategy 3 – Defending against focusing:
Focus changing is warded against in much the same way as the previous two. If you already have a specific way of looking at something, and you are offered a new way of looking at it, then you should analyze that new perspective and find out if it has any merit. However, the important part in all of this is realizing when someone is trying to actively dissuade you from looking at it from other perspectives, or even when they are actively trying to dissuade you from looking at it from specifically that perspective you already had. This someone includes you.
At that point, the damage that would be done can largely be prevented, because awareness is the strongest tool against manipulation. However, this isn’t entirely the case, because as we’ve mentioned, even those aware of the anchor will still be influenced by it. The anchor has made you aware of certain information. You can be aware of your awareness of that information, but you cannot block it out entirely, so it will always play a part in your decision-making and perception, however minor. This is fine, as long as you try to correct for it as best you can.
Key Takeaway: Understanding why someone is offering a different view is instrumental in determining whether or not manipulation is occurring.
Example: You just arrived at a friend’s (Bob) house, after leaving another friend’s house (Michelle) half an hour ago during an argument. In your eyes, Michelle was angry at you for being late, which you felt was unreasonable and undeserved, and took to mean that she was angry at you in general and using that as an excuse to yell at you. Bob listens to your story, and reassures you that “Michelle’s having a bad day. She’s stressed because she failed her driving exam this morning, is all. She’s worried that she’ll still have to take the bus to school for the next few months, so of course she’d be a bit agitated at the idea of you two missing the bus. It’s really no big deal. I’m sure she’ll call to apologize before you know it.”
So, Bob is obviously trying to persuade you into his line of thinking, and dissuade you from your line of thinking. In this case, it might be a good idea to have yourself be persuaded regardless of whether or not he’s right, because it benefits you, but in other situations, you can easily see how this could end up badly if both possibilities aren’t fully explored.
What if Bob wants you to believe that she’s having a bad day, because he wants you to remain blissfully unaware of what Michelle actually thinks of you? What if he wants you to think it’s not your fault so you’ll lash out at Michelle when next she gets angry at you?
Key Takeaway: It is important to consider all possible perspectives and analyze them as thoroughly as possible. Do not reject one view in favor of another on account of degrees of plausibility or likeability alone.
What to use anchoring for:
- To be able to successfully create and replace salient anchors to shape impressions, beliefs, behaviors and influence decision-making.
- To create optimal first impressions and correct or replace suboptimal ones.
- To create or sabotage first impressions and reputations of others.
- To create anchors and subvert them via flipnosis.
- To negotiate effectively by creating a strong starting anchor and setting favorable boundaries.
- To create fragile anchors that cause doubt and cognitive dissonance.
How to defend against anchoring:
- Don’t rely solely on first impressions or the most salient information. Always be on the look-out for more information.
- Assume that any starting position is wrong or at least changeable, find an alternative position, and try to support it. Do that for all possible positions.
- Know your sources, and know their intent. Verify information rather than assuming it to be true.
- Challenge your own beliefs. None is sacred.
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