The Washington Post is having a good day. There’s a nice article by Shankar Vedantam linking the research of Kahneman and Tversky on anchoring heuristics to widespread unwillingness to believe estimates of 600 000 excess deaths arising from the Iraq war.

And the Post which has kowtowed to Bush ever since he got in, finally seems willing to call him on obvious lies. Here’s Peter Baker and Eugene Robinson.

No doubt the collapse of hope regarding Iraq has something to do with us. The US media has finally come face to face with the reality that all the alternatives now on offer are disastrous. Even the hawks have now recognised that the costs of the war have far outweighed any benefits that might be achieved. Unfortunately, this recognition has come a few years too late for the people of Iraq, but there’s at least time for US voters to cast their verdict in November.

34 thoughts on “Anchoring

  1. “No doubt the collapse of hope regarding Iraq has something to do with us. The US media has finally come face to face with the reality that all the alternatives now on offer are disastrous.”

    No, what we’re coming to realise is that in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and its border regions with Pakistan, as well as Iran the forces of darkness are on the advance. Long term, defeat is unthinkable for us, but only now are we beginning to recognise that total victory against mediaeval Islam, will be an even bloodier and ruthless affair. Total war is like that.

  2. There seems to be a distinctive feeling that conservatives of all stripes are trying to silence attempts to say “I told you so”. I am sorry, but we knew from the start. There were massive protests around the world against this crazy action. We knew. We have a right to say “I told you so”, because we did.

    1) Plans to invade Iraq were on the table well before 9/11. And mind you 9/11 happened despite Ms Rice getting a memo “Bin Laden Determined to Strike US” and lots of other intelligence being overlooked.
    Look at her getting caught in her own lies here:

    2) If CIA director George Tenant was well aware the WMD evidence was a crock, the likelihood of other top officials in the administration knowing is very high although unproven.

    3) The British were aware that the intelligence was being totally bent to suit whatever the administration wanted

    4) Letting the weapons inspectors continue their work was a very reasonable proposition which was shouted down.

    5) It looked dodgy, it was dodgy. People smelled a rat and protested across the globe. They were heavily criticised at the time by hawks.

    6) The corporate media complied, and the balanced reportage caused the Libs here in Australia had a big cry over the ABC coverage of their technically illegal and stupid war/loss of life.

    7) We have now created more terrorists/haters through killing tons (whatever the number) of innocent civilians, AND missed the real threat of nukes and ICBMs that has arisen in North Korea while neglecting a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

    I can’t think of how it could have been done WORSE. It’s a tribute to FOX news, shock jocks and the chokechain of “are you a patriot?” that the conservatives have managed to stay afloat in the “debate” here and in the US in light of all these things. Interestingly they have failed to stay afloat on Internet sources except for the preaching to the converted of their blogs. So it’s high time for a change in the tone of the debate, the media have consistently failed us.

  3. Hi John

    It’s taking me some time to internalize the figures in that paper and the figures of millions of refugees that have fled their homes to Syria and Jordan.

    Perhaps because I don’t want to believe them, because believing that so many people have died as a result of the invasion of Iraq is just so painful.

    A tragedy of that proportions happing in our generation and the reality of crimes committed by people who represent us leave me with feelings of guilt, perhaps people of goodwill could have done more to avoid this catastrophe, feelings of helplessness, perhaps people of goodwill don’t have any real influence, and defeat, perhaps I’m way off the mark in my world view of a humanity predicated on the universality of love.

    The question now is what to do. We’ve already mentioned that those who were involved in advocating, instigating, and implementing the tragedy should have nothing to do with solving the problems that they have created.

    But if the figures in the paper are anywhere near correct, my feeling is that we must go further. Individuals must be brought to justice. War crimes tribunals must be setup to deal with the crimes committed in Iraq. In particular, to deal with those leaders that caused this catastrophe. It is now time for people of goodwill to demand this.

  4. You could test to what extent the effect is due to anchoring by looking at different ages groups. Presumably people that have gone through some of the wars where millions of people did die might be more willing to believe the 600,000 figure.

  5. observa – “No, what we’re coming to realise is that in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and its border regions with Pakistan, as well as Iran the forces of darkness are on the advance.”

    As they are in the US trying to turn it into a police state.

  6. Hi John, frankly I think there is way too much arguing about the number of deaths from both sides of the fence and to what end? Any loss of life is always horrendous. Interestingly the left seems to care little for the loss of life under Saddam or his trial at present (perhaps you could do a piece on that one day)? I think what the left and the right should be spending their collective time thinking about is how to help the Iraqi’s. Bashing George Bush might give people a warm feeling but it is not going to help the people of Iraq build civil society. What I find the most disturbing are the number of people that seemingly want Iraq to fail if it means that they can have another opportunity to do another tired George W.Bush bash. Let’s be constructive not rehash arguments that are going nowhere and producing nothing.

  7. My feeling is that there is an undeclared civil war brewing in the WaPo newsroom, as well as other papers like the New York Times, which mirrors the social and political divisions within Bush’s USA. Sure, publishers have a right to commission articles across the political spectrum (a sign of a healthy democracy) but many columns we have seen in WaPo and NYT over the past five years have just been pure propaganda and outright lies. And the publishers and editors knew that, but went ahead anyway. In other cases, they actively suppressed stories which demanded to be written, as in the “Bush Bulge” story (the NYT editor at the time said, “We can’t call the President a liar”.)

    Back in the 1970’s CIA was already boasting that they had contacts in every major media organisation across the USA. In today’s world of spin, such media moles are not just monitoring stories, they are fabricating them and spiking them as well. Sadly, the current levels of political interference in media are not just damaging to the credibility of the news media, they are also damaging to the strength of our Democracies.

    Both publishers and politicians have a lot to answer for. In particular, publishers like Murdoch and Sulzberger should be facing hard questions from Congress, if not the US Dept of Justice.

    NB: It takes a bit of reading between the lines and some experience to know what’s going on. By way of example, here’s how Rumsfeld got his message out through the WaPo earlier this week.

  8. Matt – “Bashing George Bush might give people a warm feeling but it is not going to help the people of Iraq build civil society.”

    So the thinking before the war was that bombing the s–t out of them and taking their oil WILL build a civil society????????????

  9. What I find most interesting about the whole mess is that last week our prime minister sat uncomfortably in is chair because he was unable to reply to the oppositions queries about what the next step is supposed to be.

    We have now completely abrogated our sovereignity to the United States on matters of foreign policy while we wait for a brown envelope from James Baker that tells us what to do. The handling of Iraq (from AWB to our paltry military contribution) It is without a doubt the most shameful and treasonous incident in the history of our federation.

    Howard and Downer should resign if they are incapable of making their own decisions, and Downer should be in jail.

  10. I’m waiting to see if either the GOP or the Dem’s will have a wake up call and see that the recent inept and short sited US and Western foreign policy in the ME has finally come back to haunt them and that they will have to have a good look at themselves and stop playing power politics.

    The best indicator for that is when they buckle down and start dealing with both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian problem fairly, instead allowing Israel to get away with what it has with little more than a light tap on the wrist, if at all.

    But if the reponses of the right here are any indication expect more of the same even if the get out of Iraq.

  11. So if I show you a watch and say that the normal price is $500 dollars and then later I say you can have it for $250 you are more likely to feel that you are getting a really great bargain than if I had first told you that the normal price is $255.

    Maybe this idea called “anchoring” has something to teach the marketing world. Or perhaps maybe they already know.

  12. Maybe this idea called “anchoring� has something to teach the marketing world. Or perhaps maybe they already know.

    People seem happy that petrol is ‘down’ to $1 a litre. I want it back at 50c!!

  13. Another day, another example of US media bias. This time it is the New York Times writing blatant lies in support of pro-war, pro-Bush former Democrat Joe Liebermann (and being forced to issue an apology only after reader complaints).

    It’s funny how such media errors always seem to favour the pro-Bush crowd, just like those voting machine errors always seem to favour the GOP.

    If you think this is conspiracy theory stuff, you probably also think that Saddam’s WMDs are just very well hidden. Truth is, Bush’s USA is creeping towards outright Fascism, and Australia is dangerously close behind.

  14. “Anchoring� or fooling yourself ?

    “They spun a roulette wheel and when it landed on the number 10 they asked some people whether the number of African countries was greater or less than 10 percent of the United Nations. Most people guessed that estimate was too low. Maybe the right answer was 25 percent, they guessed.� ‘They’ spun the roulette wheel again. It landed on the number 65. ‘They’ asked some people the ………etc.

    ‘They’, namely “Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described the error as caused by a phenomenon known as anchoring.�
    Source: Article by Shankar Vedantam Monday, October 23, 2006; Page A02 of the link given in JQ’s post.

    Question: Did ‘they’, Tversky and Kahnemann, allow their subjects to answer ‘I don’t know’?

  15. Two words – Bounded Rationality

    Throw in the other cognitive biases and no wonder why so many smart well educated people, let alone anyone else disagree and get so much wrong.

    We cannot get Critical thinking as a standard piece of education, so it will be a long way off before instruction on biases will become a part of everyones education or atleast those that think they count.

    It will certainly be a turning point in human history when it does.

  16. “The two words – bounded rationality” do not tell me anything about the experimental design used by Tversky and Kahnemann. Hence my question remains open.

  17. Ernstine, I think you’ll find that huge numbers of possible experimental permutations of the anchoring effect have been done by someone or other at some time (including in many non-political situations, like e.g., “how many top 10 hits did the Beatles have” or “what year was Mozart born”). People have also checked how well people think they know what the answer is (e.g., “Give the dates around which you are 95% sure that your estimate falls” etc.).

    I don’t think there is much dispute as to its validity, and in case you don’t like one demonstartion of it for one reason or another, there are 1000 others to choose from.

  18. Ghandi – “It’s funny how such media errors always seem to favour the pro-Bush crowd”

    Now, you have got to be kidding – let’s start with ‘plastic’ turkeys, then move on to Dan “fake but true” Rather and maybe rationally examine what Reuters and Chulov think Israeli missiles striking through the rusty vent holes in the roof of Lebanese ambulances do to vehicles (like nothing, man!!) and on and on and on. . .

  19. It’s funny how such media errors always seem to favour the pro-Bush crowd

    I too, have to disagree. Though not as stridently as Razor. I would think that the media see it as being in their interest not to criticize a recently elected government. How does the tagline go?… Fair and balanced.

    But I would have thought that after 2 or 3 years of the neocons, alarms bells should have been ringing. After all, the largest terrorist attacks in US history did occur on their watch. And how long did it take W to agree to an independent inquiry? And please, remind me why 28 pages of the final report were redacted? Stuff like that just gives ammunition to the conspiracy theorists.

    Nothing that an elected government or its officials do, could possibly be that important that the citizens of the country that they administer, must be obscured from. If Condoleezza Rice can sit there and say: “We had no idea they would use airplanes as missilesâ€?, then we need to ask ourselves, what could the politicians possibly know that the terrorist don’t already know?

    Yeah, you’ve got to give them a couple of years, but not a lifetime.

  20. Ernestine, I’m sure you’re quite capable of researching your question yourself.

    But here’s a question for you: Who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics?

  21. Conrad,

    Thanks for your reply. I can’t say I understand it. Indeed, I am a bit confounded by it. I thought I have asked a simple question which is amenable to an objective answer. May I assume you don’t know the answer?


    The answer to your question is: Vernon Smith and Daniel Kahneman. However, this bit of information does not help me to find the specific study of interest. If you can give me a hint I’d be most grateful. The author of the W.P. article did not provide any hints, either in terms of year of publication or publication.

    My question is sincere.

  22. Kahneman, D. and Tversky, A. (1979) Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk, Econometrica, 47(2): 263-291.

  23. Sorry, Ernestine, wrong one.

    Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Anchoring and Calibration in the Assessment of Uncertain Quantities,” (Oregon Research Institute Research Bulletin, 1972, Nov. 12, No. 5),

  24. SJ, I am very grateful for the second reference. It would have taken me ‘ages’ – or a lot of luck – to find the 1972 paper. Thanks.

  25. SJ, I can’t see anything wrong with asking Kahneman for a copy. Without having any reference to go by, I would have felt like a fool writing. So, whatever the outcome, I am still grateful for you having provided the title.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s