From the empathy gap to the halo effect, a number of cognitive biases impact our relationships. These mental shortcuts or flaws in our thinking play a major role in the way we interact with ourselves and others, so it’s only natural they’ve come to make headlines over the years. But one type of cognitive bias that doesn’t get as much attention in the interpersonal realm is “anchoring bias.”
“Anchoring bias is a cognitive bias where people rely too heavily on the first piece of information they receive ― the ‘anchor’ ― when making decisions or judgments, even if that information is irrelevant or of questionable accuracy,” Mabel Yiu, a marriage and family therapist and CEO of Women’s Therapy Institute, told HuffPost. “Individuals can struggle to adjust their subsequent judgments or decisions when faced with additional, conflicting information after setting an anchor.”
Anchoring bias is rarely conscious, but it can lead to skewed decision-making, as people make general and often inaccurate assumptions about a situation or person. They might overestimate or underestimate something’s true value and fail to rationally adjust their views, even after receiving more reliable information.
Although the concept frequently arises with regard to money and business, anchoring bias can also affect our personal relationships, particularly with romantic partners and friends. Below, Yiu and other experts break down the ways this bias plays out in our experiences with other people and how to lessen its negative impact.
Anchoring bias can put too much stock in bad first impressions.
“The tendency we have to make assumptions about a person based on an early experience or piece of information means an early impression sticks with us in such a way that future experience with that person is filtered through that lens,” said Tracy Ross, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples and family therapy. “Say someone gets drunk at a party when we first meet them. In future interactions, we look for signs or interpret any drinking to mean that they have a drinking problem.”
If someone insists on only paying their share of the lunch tab the first time you dine together, you might assume they’re very frugal, when in reality they may simply have forgotten their credit card and only had just enough cash to cover their meal. And even after learning this truth later, you may still have an impression that they’re on the cheap side.
Similarly, if you’re told that someone is cold and standoffish before you meet them, you may spend your entire first interaction waiting for them to behave in this way or interpreting small actions as coldness, even if they’re perfectly warm and pleasant. Once an idea is embedded, it’s hard to shake.
“It can be frustrating to the person who gets mischaracterized by others for a rare mistake or unique circumstance, and can trigger old childhood wounds, as many of us were typecast or pigeon-holed as a certain kind of person when we were young,” said marriage and family therapist Becky Whetstone. “It’s painful when people won’t see you differently or allow you to evolve, grow and be different over time.”
At the other end of the spectrum, good first impressions can lead to rose-colored glasses.
“A person’s initial impression can influence how they view the other person moving forward,” Yiu said. “Negative first impressions lead to negative subsequent interactions, resulting in missed opportunities. Conversely, positive first impressions result in people missing red flags or problematic behaviors in subsequent interactions.”
Anchoring bias can pose a problem if you’re in a relationship that needs further examination.
“Maybe you were impressed by your partner’s generosity the first time you met,” Ross said. “Since then, their actions have been less generous, but you continue to explain away the ungenerous behavior because you see them through rose-colored glasses.”
You may have trouble ending a relationship that has grown toxic or simply run its course because you’re holding on to the way things used to be.
“For example, you may find it difficult to break up with your neglectful partner because of the fondness you feel when you think about the beginning of the relationship that was filled with romantic gestures and excitement,” said psychotherapist Omar Torres.
Anchoring bias can impact people’s expectations.
Instead of appreciating that circumstances and people can change, you might feel inclined to make assumptions about how people will or should behave, now and in the future.
“An individual who has an expectation for how often they should see or talk to their friend or partner may have difficulty adjusting this expectation over time even if the relationship evolves,” Yiu said.
“When couples are open to new information about one another — even after years of being together ― much more is possible.”
It could also lead you to judge your partner for things they did in past relationships, assuming they will behave the same way with you.
“Anchoring bias can cause you to judge your partner too harshly,” Torres said. “Perhaps your partner shared with you that they cheated on a previous partner, so you automatically assume they will cheat on you despite evidence to the contrary.”
It can also prevent people from making progress when new issues arise.
“In my work with couples, I ask about first impressions of each other ― what it was like when a couple initially met,” Ross said. “I ask this because more often than not, we can trace those impressions to current interactions. Traits, feelings, behaviors that were present early on may currently be lacking, and that can cause issues.”
These early assumptions can get in the way of present interactions.
“If current behavior is consistently viewed through the lens of past behavior, it’s very hard to move forward and improve a relationship,” Ross added. ”‘You always’ and ‘you never’ speaks to anchoring bias ― it may not be true in the current moment even if it was in the past.”
There can be a lack of curiosity.
Assuming you know everything about what someone thinks, feels and does due to past experiences impedes an important part of strong relationships: curiosity.
“If you react from an anchoring bias, then you aren’t curious about your partner and their actual lived experience or their capacity to grow and change,” Ross said. “A lack of curiosity shuts down the possibility of new ways of relating. Plus, it doesn’t feel good, and it can feel like a lack of interest. When couples are open to new information about one another — even after years of being together ― much more is possible.”
Past experiences with other people might color your perception of a person or relationship.
“People taking a few morsels of information, maybe based on how you look or the little they know about you, and jumping to conclusions about who you are and what you’d be likely to say is one of life’s most annoying realities,” Whetstone said.
She recalled a graduate school classmate she barely knew repeatedly making snide remarks to her during class discussions. When Whetstone finally confronted her classmate, the girl confessed that she reminded her of the cheerleaders and popular kids in high school who had bullied her.
“When I explained she wasn’t being fair in her assumption, that I had only ever been kind and respectful to her, and the truth was I have been a lifelong non-conformist who was never in the popular groups or a cheerleader, she looked stunned,” Whetstone said. “Her anchor bias and inability to see me differently, even when she had no evidence that fit her assumption, created a conflict unnecessarily.”
Similarly, the way we feel about issues that frequently arise in relationships ― like money, health, work, travel, parenting and even sex ― often stems from formative anchoring experiences. Conflicts may arise around dinnertime, for example, if one partner grew up eating fast food and sees Happy Meals as enjoyable rites of passage while the other was brought up on farm-fresh home-cooked meals and views McDonald’s as an unhealthy and reckless parenting choice.
But there are ways to overcome anchoring bias.
Anchoring bias doesn’t have to negatively affect your relationships. The key is appreciating that everyone is different, uses words differently, comes from different backgrounds, has different experiences and otherwise cannot conform perfectly to others’ stereotypes and assumptions.
“To get accurate understanding, we need to be curious, open and flexible in our information-gathering, allowing our opinions and viewpoint to adjust over time, as more information is gathered,” Whetstone said. “Like updating a hard drive, we need to update how we see others and the world.”
Slow down when you feel yourself rushing to make a decision or form an opinion of someone and instead seek out other people’s diverse perspectives. Try to identify the piece of information or experience anchoring your view and ask if you would feel differently without that data point.
“Keep in mind that it’s human nature to overestimate our ability to be open-minded and non-judgmental,” Ross said. “Remind yourself to be curious, check in to see if your ideas match the specifics ― it’s so easy to generalize and much more challenging to be open-minded and present in the moment ― but any relationship will benefit from being more present and challenging the preconceived narrative.”
Even with someone you’ve known someone for years, curiosity is still an important feature in your relationship. Show openness to change and new information, prioritize listening and let go of the desire to be right.
“The healthiest way through impasse rarely involves determining who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ or which piece of data is properly or improperly anchored,” said Elisabeth LaMotte, a therapist and the founder of the DC Counseling & Psychotherapy Center.
“Instead, take some psychological space from the gridlock by infusing the conversation with curiosity about what drives each other’s perspectives,” she added. “Making time to learn about the joyful or difficult associations from the past sets the stage for healthy communication, collaboration, compromise and intimacy. When conflict is infused with curiosity and kindness, anchors carry much less weight.”