The anchoring effect is a psychological bias that leads us to rely too heavily on one piece of information – often even information that is totally irrelevant – when making decisions. Once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward adjusting or interpreting other information to reflect the “anchored” information. I can best explain this with an example. It’s well known that judges do not simply apply legal rules to the facts of a case in a purely rational or mechanical manner. In fact, the decisions of judges are influenced by political, social and psychological biases, one of those being the anchoring effect.
German judges with an average of more than fifteen years of experience on the bench first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9. As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice. Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter. On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months; the anchoring effect was 50%. (source)
What does this have to do with human rights or with the causes of human rights violations? Well, if you replace the loaded dice in the quote above with the sentencing demands of prosecutors or even the demands of the “public”, you will not be surprised to find unfairness in sentencing:
The results of a recent study of ours (Englich & Mussweiler, 2001) indicate that accomplished trial judges with an average of more than 15 years of experience were influenced by sentencing demands, even if the demands were made by non-experts. In fact, the magnitude of this influence proved to be dramatic. Judges who considered a high demand of 34 months gave final sentences that were almost 8 months longer than judges who considered a low demand of 12 months. A difference of 8 months in prison for the identical crime. Notably, this influence occurred although both demands were explicitly made by a non-expert. (source)
Sentencing demands can be an effective “anchor” leading to violations of those human rights that require fairness in criminal trials. Skilled but ruthless prosecutors can use this in order to influence even experienced judges and to have them impose unfair sentences.
Obviously, the anchoring effect isn’t limited to criminal trials, and it’s not just the anchoring effect that can introduce a bias in judges’ rulings. I’m not sure if I already mentioned this incredible finding:
The percentage of judges’ rulings that are favorable to the accused drops gradually from about 65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to 65% after a break. This indicates that judges are swayed by things that shouldn’t have any bearing on their decisions.
I’m still looking for other examples of rights violations caused by the anchoring effect, but in the mean time I should mention that it must also be possible to use the effect to improve respect for human rights.