The last of our anthology authors is Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, a South African poet with a personal history as extraordinary as that of her country. There’s more here.
This article is from The Conversation; a news outlet funded by a number of universities, and it describes a psychological heuristic called the anchoring effect. I came across it as an undergraduate back in the last Ice Age and I’d forgotten about it but this reminder is timely. Exposure to a given top (or bottom) price makes us adjust our expectations as to what a fair price might be. In this example, seeing a ludicrously priced TV makes the next item on sale seem reasonable despite still being far greater than you might have considered acceptable without that first cognitive prompt.
For us as writers, I’d be concerned that the reverse is at play – sell your book through an outlet with a plethora of discounts and your own price – often not much above cost and sometimes less – might look outrageous. Have a read – re-publishing is by permission.
The science behind our bargain hunting foolishness
What happens to your brain when you walk into a shop and are faced with a huge, ultra-high definition, 3D television at the startling price of £37,695? Assuming you actually need a new TV, you might dismiss this as ridiculous; laugh at the spendthrift fools who might buy it. And then, very sensibly, you start looking at more reasonably priced options, maybe at around the £1,500 mark. You have just been successfully manipulated. Welcome to the world of anchoring.
The above is precisely what happened to me, and it happens to all of us. Anchoring is a type of cognitive bias where the mere presence of an initial number can have a disproportionate influence on subsequent decision making. The outrageous price of the TV serves as an anchor that nudges customers towards spending more than they want. In other words, the price subconsciously influences your expectations about what you would be willing to pay. Safely back at home, the thought of spending £1,500 on a TV seems once again impossibly extravagant.
This example illustrates three key properties of anchoring. First, and perhaps most importantly: it really works.
Unlike many recent findings in psychology that fail to replicate, the anchoring effect is easy to demonstrate and repeat. For instance, in one experiment, a group of participants was asked whether Mahatma Gandhi was more than 140-years-old when he died. Another group was asked whether he was aged over nine. No one got that question wrong, of course, but when they were asked what age he actually was former group said 67, while the latter said 50. For what it’s worth, Gandhi was 78 when he died. The mere presence of an initial number however ludicrous, changes the perception of what is reasonable.
The effect is not limited to the lab, but shows up robustly in the real world. In the court room, the damages awarded are strongly influenced by anchors and even sentencing can be affected. In salary negotiations, the starting position influences the final outcome, indicating the importance of making that initial offer.
The second key thing to bear in mind: everyone does it. Every time you buy an item “on sale” you experience anchoring. The original price influences your expectations so the 25% discount feels like a real bargain. Similarly, cars don’t cost the sticker price – that’s just there to anchor your expectations so negotiating a lower price makes you feel like you got a good deal. And as we have seen with the TV example, retailers take advantage of anchoring with in-store displays featuring extremely expensive items so that the nearby products look better in comparison. Heck, you will even use it when setting the asking price on your house when it’s time to sell.
Now, occasionally, companies get it wrong. A large retail chain in the US thought it was a smart move to eliminate coupons and instead create “everyday low pricing”. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t consider the effect of anchoring and sales quickly dropped. When they reversed their policy, customers started returning. We need that anchor to inform us that we’re getting a bargain.
And that leads on to the final aspect of the phenomenon: no one is immune.
Even when you are aware of cognitive biases, you can still be affected by them and anchoring is a particularly strong bias. Judges are experienced, well-trained, and highly motivated decision makers but even they can still fall prey to systematic biases in their judgments. And despite the fact that I have been teaching psychology for nearly 20 years, you’ve already heard how I fell for it.
So how can you stop getting caught out? The truth is, anchoring is probably impossible to avoid entirely. You can, however, minimise its influence by following some simple steps:
- Be aware. Just by knowing what anchoring is and how it can affect your decision making, you limit its effectiveness. Obviously, recognising a nudge is a good start. But it is also worth being aware of your own thought processes. Some research suggests that people are particularly susceptible to cognitive biases when they are happy, making them less critical in evaluating their environment and their own judgements. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting you deliberately put yourself in a foul mood before going shopping with the family.
- Do your homework. The more information you have about a product and its price range, the less susceptible you are to anchoring. So before making a significant purchase, get as much unbiased information as you can. Consumer advocacy groups like Which? or Consumer Reports provide independent, evidence-based evaluations of products and services as well as a comparison of prices and are probably a good place to start.
- Set limits in advance. If you can decide on price limits before going out, then you are far less likely to go beyond them and make a rash decision. If you know, for instance, that you don’t want to spend more than £15 for a bottle of wine, then you are less likely to pick up the £25 bottle, even though it’s bargain compared to the Château Lafite Rothchild next to it.
Ultimately cognitive biases like anchoring are fundamental to human decision making and we’re stuck with them. In truth, we probably wouldn’t want to reject them entirely because most of the time they provide rapid shortcuts that work well and save us a ton of mental effort. The flip side is that we are mostly unaware of it happening and if we’re not careful, a clever bit of anchoring can see us merrily walking out of the shopping centre clutching a futuristic TV, thinking we’ve just bagged an incredible bargain.
I wonder if those same brain rhythms, supplemented by voice as in the anthology Let Me Tell You a Story, might enhance the reading experience for people whose reading is interrupted by stumbles over unfamiliar words. The article below is re-published with permission.
In loud rooms our brains ‘hear’ in a different way – new findings
When we talk face-to-face, we exchange many more signals than just words. We communicate using our body posture, facial expressions and head and eye movements; but also through the rhythms that are produced when someone is speaking. A good example is the rate at which we produce syllables in continuous speech – about three to seven times a second. In a conversation, a listener tunes in to this rhythm and uses it to predict the timing of the syllables that the speaker will use next. This makes it easier for them to follow what is being said.
Many other things are also going on. Using brain-imaging techniques we know for instance that even when no one is talking, the part of our brain responsible for hearing produces rhythmic activity at a similar rate to the syllables in speech. When we listen to someone talking, these brain rhythms align to the syllable structure. As a result, the brain rhythms match and track in frequency and time the incoming acoustic speech signal.
When someone speaks, we know their lip movements help the listener, too. Often these movements precede the speech – opening your mouth, for example – and provide important cues about what the person will say. Yet even on their own, lip movements contain enough information to allow trained observers to understand speech without hearing any words – hence some people can lip-read, of course. What has been unclear until now is how these movements are processed in the listener’s brain.
This was the subject of our latest study. We already knew that it is not just a speaker’s vocal chords that produce a syllable rhythm, but also their lip movements. We wanted to see whether listeners’ brain waves align to speakers’ lip movements during continuous speech in a comparable way to how they align to the acoustic speech itself – and whether this was important for understanding speech.
Our study has revealed for the first time that this is indeed the case. We recorded the brain activity of 44 healthy volunteers while they watched movies of someone telling a story. Just like the auditory part of the brain, we found that the visual part also produces rhythms. These align themselves to the syllable rhythm that is produced by the speaker’s lips during continuous speech. And when we made the listening conditions more difficult by adding distracting speech, which meant that the storyteller’s lip movements become more important to understand what they were saying, the alignment between the two rhythms became more precise.
In addition, we found that the parts of the listener’s brain that control lip movements also produce brain waves that are aligned to the lip movements of the speaker. And when these waves are better aligned to the waves from the motor part of the speaker’s brain, the listener understands the speech better. This supports the idea that brain areas that are used for producing speech are also important for understanding speech, and could have implications for studying lip-reading between people with hearing difficulties. Having shown this in relation to a speaker and listener, the next step will be to look at whether the same thing happens with brain rhythms during a two-way conversation.
Why are these insights interesting? If it is correct that speech normally works by establishing a channel for communication through aligning brain rhythms to speech rhythms – similar to tuning a radio to a certain frequency to listen to a certain station – our results suggest that there are other complementary channels that can take over when necessary. Not only can we tune ourselves to the rhythms from someone’s vocal chords, we can tune into the equivalent rhythms from their lip movement. Instead of doing this with the auditory part of our brain, we do it through the parts associated with seeing and movement.
And neither do you need to be a trained lip-reader to benefit – this is why even in a noisy environment such as a pub or a party, most people can still communicate with each other.
This anthology began as a small local project, which is why I find myself both editor and contributor, and it grew. The reasons behind it are here and they have to do with literacy and privacy, and the indignity of having things read to you when you’re an adult. This book provides a model of what could be done to alleviate those problems. More.
“Sometimes I can read a poem on the page and I can’t quite make out what the author’s intention was: there’s something there, I can tell, but it’s hidden in the language-mist. When I hear the poem read aloud, (or accompanied by music, or acted out by a variety of voices: anything is possible once you start down this road) then the clouds are blown away and the poem does what it meant to say on the tin, to re-fashion an advertising slogan.” Ian McMillan.
Nguyen Phan Que Mai is fast becoming one of Vietnam’s foremost poets and seems to have been everywhere touring and performing her work, including India, America, and China just this year. I reviewed her book The Secret of Hoa Sen here earlier and in Let Me Tell You a Story, you can read some of her other work and also hear it performed. Check out her bio.
Anne is a writer of short stories that have a quintessential Irishness about them – soft and cosy and laced with tiny toothpicks of funny, wry, blunt honesty. There’s more here
Ian McMillan is a poet, broadcaster, and presenter of BBC Radio Three’s The Verb, a programme that celebrates the spoken (and sung, and chanted, and pounded, and whispered) word. Ian’s appreciation of language; its flows and rhythms and its very many forms are what drew me to listening weekly to his programme. His way of showing language as living thing that can dance on the page if you let it out of the reverential box it sometimes gets trapped in led to me ask if he would consider writing this piece for us.
“Sometimes I can read a poem on the page and I can’t quite make out what the author’s intention was: there’s something there, I can tell, but it’s hidden in the language-mist. When I hear the poem read aloud, (or accompanied by music, or acted out by a variety of voices: anything is possible once you start down this road) then the clouds are blown away and the poem does what it meant to say on the tin, to re-fashion an advertising slogan.”
Ian is a Yorkshireman; he writes the way he speaks, and he speaks with a voice like a pint of strong dark beer in a big dimpled glass. So ease yourself into the soft-padded fireside seat of your favourite minds-eye pub, take that big glass in your hand – both hands if necessary – and give your minds-ears a treat.
This début novel, published by Inspired quill which “pledg[es] a percentage of profits to different charities, running heavily subsidised workshops, or donating books to those who may not have access to them otherwise” is a searing tale of personal discovery made all the more authentic by the fact that the author is a psychologist and knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the way human distress and disorganisation presents itself. My review is here The Psychologist and the book is here. It’s a cracking read.
Lyn is a poet. She has a voice-and-a-half. There’s more here on Readalongreads.