One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is by using its first impression of a problem that it observes to solve it. This first impression anchors our thought process and biases our thinking. Here is a thought experiment that demonstrates the strength of this anchoring effect.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Here is a set of numbers. Ask someone to estimate, not to calculate, the answer within five seconds.
(A) 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1
Here is another set of numbers. Now find another person and ask her to estimate the answer for version B within five seconds.
(B) 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8
As you will discover, the second person will give you an answer smaller than the first, and both people will give figures well below the real answer (which is 40,320).
What happens is that the first number of the series biases the person’s thinking. This number anchors the person’s thought process and unduly influences her estimate. The first series starts with a higher anchor (8). When researchers carried out an experiment using these two calculations, the average estimate for the first series was 3200 compared to only 300 for the second. Both estimates are well below the correct answer, because both series as a whole are made up of small numbers and this biases the people’s estimates to so that they fall far below the true answer.
In fact, you can bias a person’s reasoning by giving her an anchor that has nothing to do with the problem. Ask a person for the last three digits of her telephone number. Add 400 to this number, and then ask, “Do you think Attila the Hun was defeated in Europe before or after X (X being the year you got by adding 400 to the telephone number). Don’t say whether she got it right (the correct answer is A.D. 451), and then ask , “In what year would you guess Attila the Hun was defeated?” The answers you get will vary depending upon the initial number you got by adding 400 to her own telephone number.
Consciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject. Chester Carlson invented xeroxography in 1938. He tried to sell his electronic copier to every major corporation in the United States and was turned down emphatically by every single one. Because carbon paper was so cheap and plentiful, no one, they said, would buy an expensive copy machine. Their thinking process was anchored by their initial impression of the cost of a copier versus the cost of carbon paper. This impression closed off all other lines of thought. It was Xerox, a new corporation, that changed the perception of cost by leasing the machines.
Imagine that you are on the way to a Broadway play with a pair of tickets which cost one hundred dollars, and you discover you have lost the tickets. Would you pay another one hundred dollars? Now imagine you are on your way to the theater to buy the original set of tickets. Upon arrival, you realize you have lost one hundred dollars in cash. Would you now buy tickets to the play? Clearly, on an objective basis, the two situations are identical because in both you are one hundred dollars in the hole.
Nevertheless, most people report that they would be more likely to buy new tickets if they had lost the money than if they had lost the tickets. The same loss is looked at differently from two different perspectives. The loss of the cash has comparatively little effect on whether one buys new tickets. On the other hand, the cost of the lost tickets is viewed as “attending the theater,” and one is loath to accept the doubling of the cost of the play.
Our perceptual positions determine how we view things. The actress Shelley Winters was once quoted as saying, “I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were twenty-two with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic and a progressive religious experience.”
One way to shift perception is to try and look at the subject from someone else’s perspective. Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, called this kind of thinking the “rotation” method.” He was thinking of crops while simultaneously thinking about perspective. You can’t grow corn indefinitely on the same field; at some point, to refresh the soil, you have to plant hay. Similarly, to grow a different perspective, it’s helpful to adopt a different role to expand your creative consciousness toward your problem.
All of us, with a little thought, can come up with easy ways to change our perspectives by adopting different roles. One gym owner was trying to come up innovative ways to market his gym. He adopted different roles, including those of a judge, Rosie O’Donnell, a comic, and Pablo Picasso. Picasso got him to thinking about artists and their work, which inspired his idea. He hired a freelance caricature artist to sit in front of his gym with a sign offering “free caricatures in five minutes.” The artist drew caricatures of the person in a well-developed body, with the gym displayed prominently in the background. The person also got a brochure and business card. His business increased substantially almost overnight.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: A hospital is filled with hazards to your health, including myriad infections, missed diagnoses, dosage mistakes, and other complications that arise from human error. And in a hospital, human error seems all but inevitable. How can any one individual, or even any one team of individuals, keep all the tasks straight and anticipate all eventualities 100 percent of the time?
Imagine you’ve been hired by a hospital to come up with ideas to minimize errors. Assume the role of any of the following:
- · Priest
- · Airline pilot
- · Prison warden
- · Middle school principle
- · Football coach
- · Lawyer
- · Ballet dancer
How did you do?
Dr. Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore took the perspective of an airline pilot. He borrowed the concept of the checklist that pilots go through before they take off. In an experiment, Dr. Pronovost used the checklist strategy to attack just one common problem in the intensive care unit: infections in patients with central intravenous lines. The checklist listed the obvious steps that should be taken but were often forgotten or overlooked.
He gave the checklist to the nurses in the I.C.U. and, with the encouragement of hospital administrators, told them to check off each item when a doctor inserted a central line — and to call out any doctor who was cutting corners. The new checklist rule made it clear: if doctors didn’t follow every step, the nurses had permission from the administration to intervene. The nurses were strict, the doctors toed the line, and within one year the central-line infection rate in the Johns Hopkins intensive care unit had dropped from 11 percent to zero.