Can Random Numbers Affect Our Relationship Judgements? Yes…If We Like What They Imply

0 to 100%, that
someone will break your heart within the
next five years?
How did you answer this question? Maybe
you thought about your past relationship
experiences, or the person you’re dating
right now. Maybe you thought about
relevant statistics, like the divorce rate, or
the average rate of infidelity. But imagine
that just before you read this question, you
happened to be checking the weather and
saw that the chance of rain tomorrow is
10%. Would that information influence your
estimate? What if the chance of rain was
90%?
Arbitrary numbers—referred to by
researchers as numerical anchors—can
have a surprisingly large impact on
people’s judgments. 1 We often lack the
information we need for the judgments we are
asked to make. You might be asked to estimate
the length of the Nile river, for example, and find
that you can only guess at the answer. To make
that judgment, research shows that you are likely
to grasp at whatever information you happen to
have on hand, even if it’s completely irrelevant.
If you’ve recently been looking at the prices of
new cars, you might guess that the Nile is
shorter than if you’ve recently been looking at
the prices of new houses. This phenomenon,
known as the anchoring effect, has been
demonstrated in hundreds of studies on
everything from general knowledge to legal
sentencing decisions. 2
Until recently however, anchoring had yet to be
tested in the context of romantic relationships.
Relationship judgments are different from many
other judgments (e.g., the length of the Nile) in
that people have a vested interest at arriving at
a certain answer. We all want our romantic
relationships to go well, and we deeply desire for
them not to go poorly. Because of this, my
colleagues and I thought that anchors might be
used in a biased fashion in this context. 3 People
might be perfectly willing to use random numbers
that support conclusions they prefer (e.g., that a
new relationship will work out), but ignore any
numbers that support threatening conclusions
(e.g., that they will soon experience heartbreak).
Stephanie Spielmann , Geoff MacDonald , and
I tested this idea across four studies that
together involved over 3000 participants.
Participants were asked to make judgments
about positive or negative events that might
happen to them in the future. Before making
each judgment, participants were either given an
optimistic anchor (which was consistent with
their motivations), a pessimistic anchor (which
was inconsistent), or no anchor (the control
group).

Leave a Reply