Imagine people randomly divided into two groups for a simple psychology experiment. Those assigned to one group are asked two questions. First, “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 140?” And then, “How old was Gandhi when he died?” Meanwhile, those in the other group are asked the same followup question, but their first question is “Did Gandhi die before or after he reached the age of 9?”
The results of actual studies just like this one are quite consistent and robust, and they may surprise you. Participants given “140 years” as their initial comparison point think that Gandhi lived much longer than those who were given “9 years” instead. Findings like these demonstrate what psychologists call the “anchoring effect”: our strong tendency to make judgments that are biased toward arbitrary standards of comparison. The plausibility of these comparison “anchors” makes no difference to us–we rely on them regardless. As another example, research subjects asked whether Einstein’s first visit to the United States occurred before or after 1992 give a much more recent estimate of when he arrived than those asked whether he visited before or after the year 1215.
This anchoring effect might be merely a perplexing curiosity–if not for its potentially profound consequences in the real world. Consider John McCain’s recent remarks that he’d be fine with American troops in Iraq for the next 100 years, or longer. Whether he’ll be able to implement the early steps of this troubling vision will depend on many things, including who’s sworn in as the next President of the United States in January 2009. But the “100 years” anchor can–on its own–shift the public’s expectations and comfort level for how long it’s reasonable to have troops in Iraq. Several additional years suddenly seems like a brief stay when compared to a century or more.
There’s a more general point here that also deserves our attention. Regardless of the particular policy debate, psychological anchors are likely to influence the public’s support for various alternatives. An extreme proposal may only rarely receive broad endorsement, but it can stretch the range of options deemed worthy of consideration and thereby pull perceptions of what’s reasonable in its direction. Thus, for instance, arresting and deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants may have the ring of lunacy, but nevertheless this proposal has bestowed an air of legitimacy and moderation on other highly punitive (and counterproductive) immigration policy prescriptions. This is, of course, the basic problem with “centrism” as a virtue or goal–its midpoint location depends entirely on the endpoints, which are themselves ever changeable.
Creating new psychological anchors beyond the previous range of common discourse can entail significant political risks for those seeking or holding elected office. This is why the assignment is often handed over to those who are largely immune to the consequences of electoral defeat. To our deep and lasting detriment, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, and the Fox News crowd have long embraced this role–all the while providing their conservative allies with the opportunity to appear as relative models of restraint and reasonableness in their speeches and votes on the House or Senate floor.
Over time, the successful promotion of radical right-wing psychological anchors has shifted many policy discussions far away from the values and solutions that many of us cherish. This election season is obviously an ideal time for progressive voices to push back loudly and forcefully. The anti-war movement’s insistent call for an immediate responsible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is a perfect example. This option must be firmly established as an anchor in all serious deliberations about Iraq. Even if it represents a highly improbable outcome, it still serves to prevent the premature or artificial narrowing of future war policy debates. Progressives must similarly maintain and promote anchor positions on other crucial foreign and domestic policy issues. As for the political candidates themselves, even where we cannot prevent them from running toward the center, we can still play an important role in determining exactly where the middle ground lies.