The toughest assessments are perhaps self-assessments. How should you evaluate yourself? Conservatively, generously, or something in between? Some worry that modest self-evaluations may result in a lower final grade by reducing teachers’ expectations. Going in the opposite direction, and grading yourself kindly, is also often harmful – no one wants to seem like they’re delusional! So what can you do? Don’t worry, behavioural economics may be able to solve this one for you.
Behavioural economists have identified a psychological phenomena they name “anchoring”. Anchoring is a cognitive bias describing the human tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, along with his research partner Amos Tversky, were among the first researchers to study anchoring. One of their earliest studies involved an arithmetic problem, the answer to which participants had to calculate in five seconds. The first group was asked to find 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8, while the second group had to solve 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. Five seconds was not enough time for most people to solve the problem, so participants made estimates. Although the product of both sets of numbers is the same, those who were presented with the smaller numbers at the beginning of the sequence provided a median estimate of 512, while those whose sequence began with the larger numbers had a median estimate nearly four times higher: 2,250. The correct answer, by the way, is far higher than either estimate – 40,320.
The anchoring effect has also been proven to work when the anchoring prompt provided is absurd. An experiment was conducted in which half the subjects were asked if Gandhi died at the age of 9 – yes, really – and the other half were asked if he died aged 140. Participants were then asked to guess Gandhi’s actual age at death. Those that were given the lower number estimated it to be 50, while those with the higher number estimated 67. This anchoring bias occurs not only when the anchors are far beyond the range of possibility, but also when test subjects are told about the effect and instructed to prevent any information they’ve received from influencing their answer.
The mental accessibility of a particular number presented alongside a question leads to a bias toward judgements anchored by that figure. Our brains engage in what behavioural economists term “anchoring and adjustment”. That means we tend to begin at an implicitly suggested reference point, the anchor, and then adjust upwards or downwards from there. Unfortunately, these adjustments are rarely sufficient to compensate for the effect of the anchor.
What does all of this mean for us as we deal with self-assessments? The question your teacher needs to answer is what grade you deserve. If behavioural economics is anything to go by, your self-assessment can set an anchor around which the final judgement will be made. Thus, being too modest may not serve you well when you are doing a self-assessment. But be careful when bigging yourself up, or your teacher might really think you’re delusional!
Disclaimer: Obviously, anchoring won’t work if your grade happens to be based on a strict percentage or number of marks on a test ... and if your last four test grades have been Fs, don’t expect “anchoring” your teacher at an A to have much effect!