Anchoring or focalism is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.

During normal decision making, individuals anchor, or overly rely, on specific information or a specific value and then adjust to that value to account for other elements of the circumstance.  Usually once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward that value.

Take, for example, a person looking to buy a used car.  They may focus excessively on the odometer reading and model year of the car, and use those criteria as a basis for evaluating the value of the car, rather than considering how well the engine or the transmission is maintained.

Anchoring and adjustment is a psychological heuristic that influences the way people intuitively assess probabilities.  According to this heuristic, people start with an implicitly suggested reference point (the “anchor”) and make adjustments to it to reach their estimate.  A person begins with a first approximation (anchor) and then makes adjustments to that number based on additional information.

The anchoring and adjustment heuristic was first theorized by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.  In one of their first studies, the two showed that when asked to guess the percentage of African nations which are members of the United Nations, people who were first asked “Was it more or less than 45%?” guessed lower values than those who had been asked if it was more or less than 65%.  The pattern has held in other experiments for a wide variety of different subjects of estimation.  Others have suggested that anchoring and adjustment affects other kinds of estimates, like perceptions of fair prices and good deals.

Some experts say that these findings suggest that in a negotiation, participants should begin from extreme initial positions.

As a second example, consider an illustration presented by MIT professor Dan Ariely.  An audience is first asked to write the last 2 digits of their social security number, and, second, to submit mock bids on items such as wine and chocolate.  The half of the audience with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent higher than those of the other half, far higher than a chance outcome; the simple act of thinking of the first number strongly influences the second, even though there is no logical connection between them.

What does this mean for Kryptos?

It should be obvious, when one focuses on a specific clue or aspect and all of their work then relates back to that one concept whether it deserves that importance or not.  Once the bias is set, the solver will find it difficult to ignore it.

Consider my dedication to traditional, known cryptographic methods.  This would be a good example of anchoring in that I am strongly biased towards these cryptosystems.  I’m content with that as it has shaped the nature of this blog and what I’ve written about.

I would consider anchoring to be a negative quality of anyone’s mentation if they remain faithful to a clue or methods that repeatedly and consistently fail to provide a useful solution.  If I focus on the fact that Kryptos is copperplate and ignore most of the text and any other aspects in preference to my intense interest in metallurgy then this would be a fair example of negative anchoring.  If someone was sure it was some iteration of a specific cipher mechanism and happily checked many different keywords, this isn’t really that bad up to a point.  If you’re convinced you’re right then it’s worthwhile to pursue an idea to completion.  We’re all hobbyists and as much as we strive for professionalism the only point I’m making here is one of caution not prohibition.  Don’t let anchoring take over.