Anchoring Bias Extends to Sensory Perceptual Decisions

sandpaper choices

Numeric anchoring is a well-known marketing approach. Once a price is mentioned, that figure serves as the foundation for – or “anchors” – all subsequent talks and decisions.

However, a current study indicates that this phenomena is not confined to numerical decisions, the usage and comprehension of which necessitate high-level cognitive reasoning. Even when no numbers are involved, anchoring also distorts decisions at relatively low levels of cognition.

In research recently published, Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, demonstrated that anchoring bias even occurs in perceptual domains, like sight, sound, and touch.

True Grit

Jain conducted various studies utilizing several senses to test his innovative notion that anchoring could occur without numbers as the beginning point. To examine decision-making related to haptics, or touch, he invited people to close their eyes and touch sandpaper of varying grits.

When the subjects opened their eyes, he offered them 16 sandpaper choices and asked them to find the grit that matched the first one.

Jain anchored the range of possibilities by having participants begin with a grit that was either significantly finer or coarser than the initial one. Those subjects who were anchored with the finer grit chose sandpaper that was finer than the one they first touched, while the opposite was true for those who were moored with the coarser grit.

“My findings offer marketing professionals another fundamental tool to guide consumer behavior by anchoring a product or message through their senses,”

Jain said. Additionally, Jain’s research offers critical insight into the underpinnings of the phenomenon of anchoring.

Perceptual Decision Black Box

Even in academic circles, there are still debates regarding how decisions are made and the function of anchoring. Do people make one step from the anchor point to their final decision? Or do they move away from the anchor in small steps?

Jain’s experiments allowed him to observe the decision-making process in action, resulting in a conclusion that reconciles these two concepts. He discovered that his subjects made small jumps away from the anchor point before arriving at their final conclusions, but the anchor’s placement had an impact on each of those jumps.

“Discovering exactly how we humans make decisions has been nearly impossible. With this research, I found an opening into the black box of the human brain. I’ve shown how decision-making works in the perceptual domains, and it signals directly how it may work in numerical domains,”

Jain said.


Anchoring and adjustment, a ubiquitous heuristic process in judgment and decision making, has been vastly demonstrated in the numerical domain. We, with the help of four studies, demonstrate the anchoring and adjustment bias in perceptual domains. Our results show that anchoring and adjustment can bias our judgments at relatively low levels of cognition. Additionally, we outline a process by which anchoring and adjustment biases individuals’ judgments in perceptual domains. Our results indicate a process wherein individuals search for an answer by testing plausible answers, the search being biased by the anchor question. We show that this movement is dominated by adjustments to adjacent possible responses indicating a search process constrained by selective accessibility. This process account explains the extant data in numerical domains as well—thus providing a way for a potential resolution to the disagreement among different existing process accounts for the anchoring phenomenon.

  1. Gaurav Jain, Dhananjay Nayakankuppam, Gary J. Gaeth. Perceptual anchoring and adjustment. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2021; DOI: 10.1002/bdm.2231

Last Updated on December 31, 2023