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Anchoring Bias as a Barrier to Situational Awareness

anchorThere are over 100 cognitive biases that can impact situational awareness, and subsequently, decision making. Many of these biases are discussed during the Mental Management of Emergencies and Flawed Situational Awareness programs because it is important for responders to understand that we may possess a bias without knowing it and without knowing the impact of it. One such bias is the anchoring bias.


Anchoring Bias

Anchoring describes our potential to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that is offered to us (i.e., the “anchor”) when making a decision. This can impact situational awareness and decision making several ways. For example, once we lock on to something that we think is right… that first piece of information… it can be very difficult for the brain to let go of it.

I demonstrate this during the Mental Management of Emergencies class when I provide the class with a word problem and then “trick” them by telling them what the “right” answer is. Once all of them “see” the right answer in their mind, I then tell them I made a mistake and the “right” answer is… which is actually incorrect.

anchoring-effectThe students are then provided an index card and tasked with coming up with (and writing down on the index card) the correct answer and turn it in to me. I provide the students with some additional information about the problem, defining some terms and giving them some guidance to help them solve the problem. Some of the students are able to decipher the correct answer right away.

It’s what some of the other students – ok, most of the students – do that is completely astounding. Most of the students write down the one answer that I said was incorrect and turn it in. During this exercise I don’t reveal the actual correct answer (until the exercise is over and the point it made). But I do clearly tell the students the one incorrect answer.

Our stubborn brain

Anchoring bias is an example of how stubborn our brains can be, especially when we trust initial information being shared with us. The initial information forms the “frame” around which we can try to make all the other information make sense. If something doesn’t fit that frame, our brains can filter that information out (as if it never existed).

Red CircleDuring the exercise I mention above, when I reveal the answer is incorrect, I put the incorrect answer on the screen and put a very large red circle with a red diagonal line running across the circle over the incorrect answer… while I am telling the students verbally the answer is wrong. Remarkably, some students will admit they never saw the visual prompt on the screen, nor did they hear me say the answer is wrong. Their brains filtered out that information and they didn’t even know it.


The impact of anchoring on decision making

During the decision making process, anchoring can impact the quality of decisions two ways. First, once a person locks on to the anchored information, new information coming in may not get processed (or understood). This is what I will often refer to as flawed Level 2 situational awareness (a breakdown in the comprehension phase of situational awareness development).

self_perception_2Stated another way, simply because you see something or hear something doesn’t mean you’ll understand what it means. This is especially true if your brain is anchored to a piece of information that runs contrary to what you are now seeing or hearing. If given the choice, the brain will most often give deference to the FIRST arriving information, which is the entire premise of the anchoring bias.

Second, once your brain locks on to what it believes to be correct, it can be very difficult to let go and embrace a new understanding. Think about how hard it can be to get someone to change an opinion or a belief. It can be extremely difficult for brains to change opinions. If the anchor is based on initial information that is incorrect, getting the brain to let go of that anchored belief (or opinion… or assumption) can be difficult.

During the exercise I discussed above, it finally comes to the point where I have to reveal the correct answer. When I do the big reveal I can see the students have their moment of clarity – they now understand – or comprehend they were wrong. And now, after the fact, it is crystal clear that they were under the grips of a cognitive bias.

Chief Gasaway’s Advice


SolutionsKeep in mind that you are vulnerable to having your situational awareness and decision making impacted by the anchoring bias. As the first pieces of information are processed, they may be wrong. Dispatchers gather and share the first pieces of information to responders. That information most often comes from citizens who called 9-1-1.

The probability for errors in the information shared from citizens, through the dispatchers, is extremely high. But when the dispatcher says over the radio: “You are responding to _______________” (fill in the blank with the information your brain perceives as factual) it can be very hard for you to let go of that information.

Keep in mind that everything you are being told prior to arrival is forming images in your “mind’s eye.” This is what I term the “pre-arrival lens.” The problem with the pre-arrival lens is that it is almost entirely fictional… until proven (or disproven) to be factual… with a properly conducted size-up. If you’re anchored to incorrect information, it may be hard for you to comprehend the facts that are in conflict with a flawed pre-arrival lens.

While much research has been conducted on the anchoring bias, there is no real consensus as to what causes it or how to prevent it from happening. In one study, participants were paid cash in an effort to keep them from displaying an anchoring bias. It didn’t work. They were still anchored to the first information.

Action Items

  1. Situational Awareness Matters!Discuss a time when anchoring bias impacted your situational awareness or impacted your decision making.
  2. Discuss strategies for how to overcome the anchoring bias.
  3. Discuss the value of completing a thorough size-up as a strategy for overcoming the anchoring bias and making corrections to errors in your pre-arrival lens.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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