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The Anchor Effect at Sentencing

The Anchoring Effect at Sentencing

The anchor effect occurs when someone uses a reference (often arbitrary) to gage someone opinion on something. And while the person might not agree with the anchor, research shows these anchors clearly influences peoples opinions. The power anchors have in influencing people’s opinions was first brought to my attention by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Chapter 11, pg119-136).

One of the most influential examples he gave was when he first asked people how happy they were in life, and then asked how much they’ve been dating. There were very little correlations between the two answers. However when he reversed the order of the questions the answers were highly related.

However the most disturbing example he gives of anchors had to do with the criminal justice system and sentencing. German judges with more then 15 years experience on average were asked what kind of sentence they would give a woman caught shoplifting. They then rolled a pair of dice that were rigged to come up on 3 or 9. If the dice came up on a 9, the judges on average said they would impose a 8 month sentence. However if the dice came up on 3 the judges said they would impose a 5 month sentence. This meant the anchoring effect of the dice was 50%.[1]

This left me wondering if something so random as the roll of the dice could have such a huge effect on experienced judges, how much of a roll does this play in our current justice system. And is there a compound effect? Do the worse crimes that make the news lead to “hard on crime” legislation? And if so do these hard penalties (usually for minor crimes) effect what sentence the judge gives? Does it effect what kind of sentence the prosecutor’s ask for, which in return effect what sentence the judges give defendants? After reading this chapter I could only conclude these anchoring effects have a large role to play in mass incarceration.

Foot Notes

[1] The anchoring effect can be calculated by taking the difference of the results between the 2 andchors (8 -3 = 5) and dividing it by the difference of the 2 ancors (9 – 3  =  6). This results in an anchoring effect %50 (3/6  =  %50).