What is meant by anchoring in psychology?


In this article, we’ll discuss anchoring, a very useful concept in psychology.

When two separate events happen simultaneously enough number of times such that occurring of one event reminds you of the other, the events are said to be anchored in your mind. The classical conditioning of Pavlov’s dogs is the simplest and the most famous example of anchoring.

Ivan Pavlov successfully demonstrated the anchoring of ‘ringing a bell’ and ‘salivation’ in his dogs. When he brought food to the dogs, he rang a bell simultaneously. He repeated this until the dogs learned that ringing the bell means they’re about to eat and so started salivating.

A point came when Pavlov only rang a bell but brought no food but still the dogs salivated. The ‘ringing of the bell’ and ‘salivation’ had been anchored such that the occurrence of one event (ringing) triggered the occurrence of another (salivation).

Forget dogs, in our day-to-day lives, we experience anchoring whenever we hear a song that reminds us of a good memory, visit a place that reminds us of our past experiences in that place or feel attracted to a person who looks like our previous crush.

Mechanics of anchoring

Memories are not stored discretely in our minds. A single memory can overlap with many other memories and the points of this overlapping are anchors. The extent of anchoring will depend on how strong the anchor is or in other words, to the extent of overlapping.

Right now you’re perhaps sitting in your chair and looking at your computer screen. The information that you’re exposed to in your room is minimal.

Hardly anything in the room is anchored to any of your memories unless you are a crazy Twilight fan with posters of Edward on every wall.

As soon as you step out of the room and your house, you may encounter dozens of cues that will force your mind to follow certain trains of thought or activities just because they were anchored due their past simultaneous repetition.

First, you encounter a car playing loud music. You hear carefully and recognize the song. It’s a song that elicits a good past memory and so for a while, you get lost in those thoughts. The song is anchored to your good past memory and makes you feel good for a while as you recall your positive memory.

Next, you notice a girl at the bus station who has the same hair as your previous girlfriend. You think it’s your ex but on a closer look, you realize that it’s a different person.

Suddenly, you start to remember everything about your ex- how you met, how good the times were and how a silly fight ended it all.

As Pavlov’s dogs showed, anchoring works not only in recalling past memories but also carrying out past activities that were linked to the current event. All our habits follow the same basic anchoring mechanism.

anchoring in psychology

Creating and breaking anchors

Now that you know how it all works, it’s time to fiddle with it. You can create and remove anchors at will because now you are consciously aware of the process that has long been occurring behind the veils.

To create an anchor all you need to do is repeat two activities simultaneously enough number of times.

Try listening to a particular song every time you feel happy. Over time, listening to the song and your happy feelings will become anchored. Any time you’re feeling down or out of sorts, you can play the song and feel happy again!

The more you repeat events simultaneously, the more the anchoring will be strengthened. However, if one event kept on happening without the other, the anchor gets weakened until it finally breaks. This knowledge can be used to overcome bad habits and cure phobias.

Let’s say you noticed that you smoke whenever you see another person smoking, whether on TV or in real life. The event of ‘watching someone else smoke’ is anchored to the activity of ‘you smoking’.

To break this association, resist the temptation to smoke when you see someone else smoking. When you do this enough number of times, a time will come when the anchor will be broken and you won’t feel the temptation to smoke again upon seeing someone else smoke. It’s that simple.

If you’re afraid of closed spaces (claustrophobia), then this may be because of a traumatic past event/s that you experienced in enclosed spaces. So your mind anchored an enclosed place with fear.

To break this association, go to an enclosed place that scares you whenever you get a chance. Even if you’re afraid at first, stay there for a while. Repeat this as many times as you can.

Slowly but surely, your mind will learn that the enclosed spaces aren’t that dangerous after all (since nothing bad will happen to you) till the association between fear and enclosed spaces is completely broken.