Dan Ariely
Predictably Irrational

When we looked at the bids for the two pairs of related items (the two wines and the two computer components), their relative prices seemed incredibly logical. Everyone was willing to pay more for the keyboard than for the trackball—and also pay more for the 1996 Hermitage than for the 1998 Cotes du Rhone. The significance of this is that once the participants were willing to pay a certain price for one product, their willingness to pay for other items in the same product category was judged relative to that first price (the anchor).

This, then, is what we call arbitrary coherence. Initial prices are largely 'arbitrary' and can be influenced by responses to random questions; but once those prices are established in our minds, they shape not only what we are willing to pay for an item, but also how much we are willing to pay for related products (this makes them coherent).

Now I need to add one important clarification to the story I've just told. In life we are bombarded by prices. We see the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for cars, lawn mowers, and coffeemakers. We get the real estate agent's spiel on local housing prices. But price rags by themselves are not necessarily anchors. They become anchors when we contemplate buying a product or service at that particular price. That's when the imprint is set. From then on, we are willing to accept a range of prices—but as with the pull of a bungee cord, we always refer back to the original anchor. Thus the first anchor influences nor only the immediate buying decision but many others that follow.

We might see a 57-inch LCD high-definition television on sale for $3,000, for instance. The price tag is not the anchor. But if we decide to buy it (or seriously contemplate buying it) at that price, then the decision becomes our anchor henceforth in terms of LCD television sers. That's our peg in the ground, and from then on-whether we shop for another set or merely have a conversation at a backyard cookout—all other high-definition televisions are judged relative to that price.

Anchoring influences all kinds of purchases. Uri Simonsohn (a professor at the University of Pennsylvania) and George Loewenstein, for example, found that people who move to a new city generally remain anchored to the prices they paid for housing in their former city. In their study they found that people who move from inexpensive markets (say, Lubbock, Texas) to moderately priced cities (say, Pittsburgh) don't increase their spending to fit the new market. Rather, these people spend an amount similar to what they were used to in the previous market, even if this means having to squeeze themselves and their families into smaller or less comfortable homes. Likewise, transplants from more expensive cities sink the same dollars into their new housing situation as they did in the past. People who move from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, in other words, don't generally downsize their spending much once they hit Pennsylvania: they spend an amount similar to what they used to spend in Los Angeles.

It seems that we get used to the particularities of our housing markets and don't readily change. The only way out of this box, in fact, is to rent a home in the new location for a year or so. That way, we adjust to the new environment—and, after a while, we are able to make a purchase that aligns with the local market.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.