Pushing the Limits

Many people violate the speed limit while driving by around 10-20%. Very often, even if you zoom right by a police officer, the officer won’t bat an eye unless you’re exceeding it by closer to 30% or more. Of course, there are plenty of confounding factors there (which aren’t the scope of this post), but the point is that every day thousands of people routinely exceed the speed limit. Doesn’t that mean that the de facto speed limit is in fact 10-20% higher than the posted one?

People violate the speed limit, but they don’t ignore it. Believe it or not, even the people who are speeding are mostly basing their speed on the posted limit, even as they’re exceeding it. Let’s say you have a road with a 55 MPH limit. People might regularly go 60 or 65. But far fewer of them will go 80 – at least on that road. Put them on a road with no speed limit, and they might happily cruise along at 90 MPH or more. Why?

Because the posted speed limit is still anchoring them. Their brains are starting with what they’re told, and then adjusting up or down. But they’re not just pulling a number out of thin air.

I once gave a group talk on salary negotiations, and to start I did a little exercise. I divided the group in half, and to each group I gave a small 2-question quiz. The quizzes were slightly different. Here’s the quiz I gave to group A:

“Question 1, answer Yes or No: Was Rosa Parks 22 years old during the famous bus incident? Question 2: How old do you think she was during that event?

Then here’s the question I gave to group B:

“Question 1, answer Yes or No: Was Rosa Parks 62 years old during the famous bus incident? Question 2: How old do you think she was during that event?”

The answers to question 1 weren’t really important, but I averaged each group’s answers to question 2. Group A guessed an average of 28 years old. Group B guessed an average of 46 years old.

Neither group actually knew how old Rosa Parks was (she was 42 during the events in 1955, by the way!), and so if I had just asked everyone to guess I’d have gotten a mostly random sampling. But when I anchored them to a number – even a mostly meaningless one! – they mentally adjusted from that number, rather than coming up with something from scratch. Group A mostly figured that 22 was a little too young to be likely, but was probably close; Group B did the same thing in reverse down from 62. The overall lesson is that being the first to speak in salary negotiations can actually help you, because you’re setting the initial number that gets negotiated from.

Which brings us back to speed limits. The people setting them might know perfectly well that most people aren’t going to be 100% diligent in strictly obeying them, but they also know that most people won’t deviate from them by much.

We’re vulnerable to anchoring because isolated evaluation is really difficult. If your boss asks you if you can get something to her by next Friday, it’s easier to adjust that up or down by a day or so than to step back and really think through a reasonable deadline, so you default.

Every time you find yourself compromising, “meeting in the middle,” or otherwise agreeing to something with a small change, take a moment of reflection. There’s nothing wrong with being mostly agreeable with people you trust, of course (like, presumably, your coworkers). But it’s good mental training to make sure that you’re the one in control of what “reasonable” means to you.

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