Anchors

rude-politeI have been thinking about manners and the cultural norms of what is considered polite and orderly. The topic has come to the fore of thought as I recall stories and events from Kenya. I found the norms of Kenya very familiar to the ones I knew growing up. I knew many missionaries in Kenya that were surprised that they were thought to be rude – something that was foreign to everything they perceived about themself. But then cross-cultural living often had that effect.

Someone has just been rude to you. We all react differently to rudeness – at least we think we do. How do we respond? Sometimes it is a cultural norm that one needs to adjust to. People in New York City and Boston are good and nice people. But I grew up in the South and initially I interpreted the behavioral norms I encountered in Boston as rude. I soon learned it was just a new set of norms, new waters in which I needed to learn to swim.

Sometimes we encounter a person for whom “rude” is a state of being. They just come across as rude, don’t seem to be aware/care or are unwilling to adapt to the environment around them. In my experience, we tell ourselves, “they’re just that way – God bless their hearts.”

But we are mostly surprised by rudeness. We surprise others by our rudeness. When we encounter a surprising or unexpected event, our thoughts become immersed in the event in an attempt to interpret it, make sense of it, and understand our own feelings related to the incident. There is a large body of study that shows this immersion, when initiated by a negative event such as rudeness has a gravity all its own: it tends to drag us down the rabbit hole. Even minor events such as rudeness can cause strong negative emotional reactions as our thoughts and attention narrow to focus on the negative aspects of the event. Studies have also shown that witnessing rudeness can have the same effect upon us, even when the rudeness is aimed at others.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at how rudeness affects our behavior. Turns out, rude experiences can trigger the anchoring bias – our tendency to focus on one piece of information when making a decision, even if the information is irrelevant. For example, studies have shown that after experiencing rudeness, doctors and medical residents were more likely to anchor to an incorrect diagnosis. Other studies have shown that in negotiation settings, negotiators often become fixated on specific (and sometimes irrelevant) pieces of information that negatively impact their negotiated outcomes. In the courtroom, judges react to their experience of rudeness and award radically different sentences for almost identical crimes based on the punishments suggested by the prosecutor. Likewise, investors’ judgments of stock prices have been shown to be heavily impacted by the anchoring bias.

In other words, rather than consider a wide range of possibilities, our attention becomes focused on the anchor. We begin to selectively recall and associate information to reinforce our judgment (anchor). As our attention narrows and focuses on the anchor, there is an increasingly disproportionate effect on judgment.

I just finished reading “Breath from Salt” by Bijal P. Trivedi, a history of the identification and treatment of cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disorder that affects mostly the lungs, but also the pancreas, liver, kidneys, and intestine. There are approximately 30,000 patients in the US. Prior to the development of treatment protocols most patients died in childhood or the teenage years. Before ~1940, CF had not been independently diagnosed. It was a mystery disease that seemed to cause wasting, ever-reducing lung capacity, and a host of infection and immune system problems. The most common diagnosis was severe celiac disease.

The anchoring effect helped me to understand one aspect of the many stories in “Breath from Salt”. Knowledge of CF was outside the experience of most Pediatricians. Parents with an infant failing to thrive could be increasingly anxious and push for the doctor to do more. There is a perception of rudeness; rudeness-induced negative arousal exacerbates the anchoring judgment. The diagnosis hardens to celiac disease. It was a phenomena that persisted into the 1990s. One story was quite telling.

The parents continued to push their pediatrician for more tests, more inquiry – understandable as their child was not thriving and was increasingly sick. The doctor was compassionate, but stayed with his diagnosis. Did the doctor think the parents had crossed over into rudeness? Did that anchor his judgment and limit his search for information that might challenge his diagnosis? The story is silent on the matter. But in any case, the parents made an appointment with the doctor’s medical practice partner. After the first meeting, the other doctor reached a preliminary diagnosis of CF and ordered the standard tests which confirmed the diagnosis – cystic fibrosis.

I think I had my own experience with the phenomena some years ago. I woke up one morning and had a all these things “floating” in my vision. There seemed to be a pool of “dark matter” collecting in the bottom of my vision. When visiting the eye clinic, in the initial discussion of the symptoms I mentioned what I had read on the internet. The demeanor of the doctor instantly changed.

He had spent years in medical school and specialized in the eyes and vision. I was a guy who searched WebMD or some such site. I was undoubtedly perceived as rude. Did it effect his judgment or treatment. He concluded nothing was wrong. It was probably something that just happened as we get older. I had lived with my eyes and vision for almost 60 years and tried to tell him this was radically different. I probably seemed increasingly rude and he anchored on his diagnosis. Epilogue: my sister arranged an appointment with a specialist that afternoon. Turns out WebMD was right. And me? I thought the first doctor was rude and fumed about it… maybe I still do a little even now.

I wonder how often each of us become anchored in one thing or another because of our perception of rudeness. Each encounter cements the anchor as we expand our collection of information that affirms our already reached conclusion – or another person’s “anchor” about us!

One might guess that being polite, mannered, and kind in word and thought helps to diffuse the anchoring effect on judgment – and it does as studies confirm. So let us all keep that in mind as we go about our day. What can we each do on this day to open up new possibilities and better judgments?

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