At a football game celebrating their latest pickpocket haul, con man Nicky and his apprentice Jess get into a series of escalating bets with a Chinese businessman.
$1,000, $5,000, $10,000 — $100,000 — they keep increasing the stakes — and Nicky keeps losing. Finally, Nicky can’t take it anymore and goes into overdrive. He bets 1.1 million dollars.
“Double or nothin’, high card takes it all.”
Nicky has now bet not just all of his, but his entire gang’s money — on a single card draw. When he turns over the deck, he almost faints. Three of hearts. His opponent drew the five of spades. Nicky lost. Again.
Suddenly, his throat feels dry. He’s shaking. Nicky can barely see straight. Having watched the disaster from two feet away, Jess is furious. She yells at him. Pounds on his chest.
But then, just as they’re about walk out, Nicky stops. He can’t quit now. Not like this. He needs one more. One final play. He turns around.
“Double it. I’m good for it.”
The Chinese businessman can barely believe it.
“Dude, what are you doing? You’re crazy.”
At this point, that sure seems like a fair assessment. Especially considering the bet Nicky offers next:
“Pick any player on or off the field. And I will guess the number.”
When you include backups and swap-ins waiting on the sidelines, a football team easily racks up 50 players. That’s about 100–1 odds. In other words:
“That’s f*cking crazy.”
And, as if that wasn’t enough, Nicky then says he’ll let Jess guess the number. Not one to pass on free money, the businessman agrees. Jess keeps begging Nicky to call it off as they watch him survey the field, but Nicky won’t budge.
Once he has made his choice, the businessman hands Jess the binoculars. She’s terrified. Obviously. There are over $2 million at stake — and she’s pretty sure Nicky doesn’t have the money.
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
At the last second, their opponent offers to let them off the hook. But Nicky is beyond hope.
“Just. Pick. A number.”
Desperately, Jess scans the field, looking for any sign of indication, of what player, what number to pick. And then, right before she’s about to give up and just guess, she spots…Farhad.
Farhad is a fellow gang member and Nicky’s best friend. He’s overweight, obnoxious, and his head is full of some curly mess you can barely call hair. But he’s also standing there, right in the middle of the field, casually sporting the number 55.
“Oh my god,” Jess thinks. As it dawns on her that the whole thing may have been a setup from the beginning, Jess says the number. Slowly.
“Fifty…five. Number fifty-five.”
The Chinese gambler shakes his head. Not in smug victory, but in loser’s disbelief.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
Then, it’s his turn to lose his mind. But this time, in a good way.
“Holy sh*t! How did you do that? That’s right!”
He still can’t believe it. But he’s so in awe that he’s not even mad. He’s excited. He jumps up and down. He hands Nicky the money. Gladly. He even asks them to go to Vegas together. But, finally, Nicky declines.
When he and Jess leave the stadium, Nicky has turned 1.1 million dollars into more than four. And he did it thanks to the power of the subconscious mind.
In the back of the getaway car, Jess still can’t believe what just happened.
“How did you know who he was gonna pick?”
Nicky is pleased with himself.
“We told him. We’ve been telling him all day. From the moment he left his hotel room, we’ve been priming him. Programming his subconscious.”
And then, Nicky goes on to explain what scientists call anchoring.
“He’s been seeing the number 55 all day long. On the elevator. In the lobby. Even the stick pin on the doorman. Not only that, we loaded his route from the hotel to the stadium. He looks out the window, primers are everywhere.”
The road signs, billboards, a mob demonstrating for a group called “Local 55,” people wearing jerseys with the number — the Chinese businessman’s path is littered with the number 55.
“Now, he doesn’t see it, but he does. There’s no getting around it. He even sees Farhad. Suggestions are everywhere.”
What’s more, Nicky arranged for the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones to play in the victim’s hotel room all night. Why? The Mandarin word for ‘five’ is ‘woo.’ Therefore, “woo-woo” adds up to 55 — and there are 124 “woo-woos” in that song.
It sounds simple, primal, even stupid, but that’s how it works. Thousands of micro-suggestions that affect the human mind. And the result?
“Now, he’s not registering it, but it’s all there. So when he picks up those binoculars, looks out on the field, sees a familiar face with the number 55 on his jersey, some little voice in the back of his mind says: “That’s it.” And he thinks it’s intuition. And he picks.”
This scene from the movie Focus might sound like an exaggerated example, but if you watch shows running similar, real-world experiments, like Brain Games or Deception with Keith Barry, you’ll see: That’s the power of anchoring — and it happens to you and me every day, whether we like it or not.
Some of the first scientists to investigate this cognitive bias were Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and it’s particularly evident with numbers.
In their initial study, they asked people to calculate a complex multiplication within five seconds and found that people’s estimates varied a lot depending on which numbers they first saw in the sequence.
If I show you 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8, you’ll start multiplying those first numbers, and when time runs out, you’ll probably guess that the end result is somewhere around 500. But if I show you 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 and you take the exact same approach, you’ll land at a much higher final estimate — likely around 2,000 — just because the first numbers were the larger ones.
The correct answer is 40,320, by the way. I know, crazy high, right? But it gets crazier: The anchor can be completely random, but will still work.
In that same study, Kahneman and Tversky showed participants a wheel of fortune that was set to always land on either 10 or 65. Afterwards, they asked them: “What is the percentage of African countries in the United Nations?” If people had seen the wheel stop on 10, they guessed 25% on average. If they had seen the number 65, their average guess was 45%. People knew the game they saw was based on chance. Yet, the result still biased their judgment. The correct answer is 28%.
But the anchoring bias goes further. As in the Chinese gambler’s case, it can literally make us choose differently.
Another researcher, Dan Ariely, asked students in his MBA class to write down the last two digits of their social security number (SSN). Then, he showed them some items, like wine or chocolate, and asked if they’d pay that amount for them. That was an easy yes-or-no question, but when he later asked them to bid on these goods, the initial number had become an anchor. Those with higher ending digits were willing to pay 60% to 120% more — for the same items! Just because their SSN had dictated a higher baseline.
But wait, there still is more. Beyond being random, powerful, and affecting both our judgment and our decisions, anchoring is also nearly impossible to avoid. For example, even if you know an anchor can’t possibly be on the spectrum of correct answers, it’ll still influence you.
One study asked students whether Mahatma Gandhi died “before or after age 9” or “before or after age 140.” Everyone knew both anchors were nonsense, but they still adjusted their guesses somewhat in that direction. The first group estimated he died at age 50, the second at age 67, on average. Gandhi lived to 78, by the way.
Other studies tried telling people about the anchoring bias before asking them to make guesses and paying them money to avoid anchoring — all to no avail.
There are several theories why anchoring happens, a favored one being selective accessibility. It suggests that, in an effort to make our lives easier, our brain wants an anchor to be the right answer, and starts testing for that assumption. But in trying to validate this hypothesis, it looks for ways in which new guesses are similar to the anchor — and thus sticks closely to it regardless.
There are also multiple factors that affect how prone we are to the anchoring bias, many of which are contextual, like our mood, personality, experience, and cognitive ability. The studies show conflicting evidence but, supposedly, being sad as opposed to happy or in a neutral mood makes you more susceptible. So does being agreeable, conscientious, and open to new experiences. Having knowledge and experience in the field related to the anchor helps combat the effect, while general intelligence may or may not do anything.
Like most cognitive biases, anchoring isn’t something we can ever completely get rid of, but we also don’t need to. As long as we fight it when its consequences are most damaging, we can live our lives just fine. That’s not a skill you pick up in a day, but one that requires repeated practice and, above all, awareness.
Having the information is important, but having a story to tie it to will help you remember. Maybe, it’ll be the story of how Nicky hustled a guy out of two million dollars. Maybe, that’ll be your anchor.
But, regardless of which story you choose, one thing’s for sure about this one: it’s a great example of the power of your subconscious mind.