False anchors II: Don’t get sunk by your teenager

My latest post discussed the topic of false anchors: large numbers issued by retailers for the sheer purpose of anchoring the consumer, then creating an immediate contrast with the “sales” price. “Our amazing TV usually sells for $3000 but—today only—get it for an unbelievable $1800!” The purpose of the post was to alert unsuspecting buyers to the possibility of a psychological trap.

Well, an astute reader offered another example well worth relating, in the spirit of making life negotiable. She actually mentioned the idea of false anchors to a bunch of high schoolers, who recognized the tactic like the back of their hand. Indeed, they immediately offered an analog from their own lives. Whenever they have some bad news to relate to their parents—a D on their math exam, perhaps—they admitted they often say something like this: “Mom, don’t worry: I’m not pregnant, and I haven’t been arrested. I do have to tell you something, though: I just got a D on my math exam.”

What a perfect extension of false anchors! Teenagers, like retailers, are essentially anchoring the listener—in this case, their unsuspecting parents—on some really bad news. And shortly thereafter, they’re bringing up the real news, which is bad but not REALLY bad. In the context of the really bad news, the bad news doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Using this example to make life negotiable depends on whether you’re the teenager or the parents. If you’re the teenager, it undoubtedly works—once. It’s a good way to deliver some bad news and make it seem slightly less bad. Otherwise, why would your peers use it so often? But that’s not to say it’s ethical, preying as you are on your parents’ psychological biases. Nor that it will work more often than once. Your parents, having at least half a brain, will probably cut you some slack the first time but call you out the second time, not necessarily for the bad grade but for the well-worn use of a sketchy tactic.

Now if you’re the parents, making life negotiable means recognizing this tactic the first time. I can only hope that this post helps you to do so. And when you do, your response should resemble the consumer’s response to the amazing TV deal. Just as the consumer must ignore the first price and compare the second against competitors, you the parent must force yourself to ignore the anchor—in this case, the impregnation or incarceration—and focus on the real point—the D. Then evaluate that D against whatever standard you usually use to evaluate grades, not the prospect of grandkids or bail bonds. And, while calling Best Buy to tell them you spotted their false anchor won’t get you very far, telling your kid you spotted their tactic will probably go a ways toward nipping it in the bud in the future.

Have you ever dropped a false anchor as a teenager or detected one as a parent?

When to ask why

A past post discussed the power of why, suggesting that a well-placed “why?” can surface a wealth of information from the people who disagree with us—toddlers and workmates alike. Like almost everything in life, however, the power of why has limits. Why? To find out, let’s consider an age group somewhere between toddlers and colleagues—teenagers.

If teenagers do anything consistently, it’s to ask their parents for money. And since they want the money more than they want to explain the reason, these requests can often raise hackles. In such situations, a well-placed why can make life negotiable, whereas an ill-timed why can make life miserable.

To see what I mean, imagine that your independently-minded teenager Buck approaches you on a Saturday afternoon. Hopeful that he plans to acknowledge your existence, you smile at him cheerfully and say, “Hey Buck, how are you?”, to which he curtly replies: “Can I have some money?”

You need to know where he’s coming from. Good time to ask why? Yes. When you’re trying to understand a person’s basic motivations, whys are essential for doing so. So feel free to why-away. “To go to the movies,” Buck answers, adding that, “I need 35 bucks.”

Now, even boatload of sweets would not bring the total to $35, so you know this number is inflated. You need to bring it down. Good time to ask why? Probably not. Think about what would happen if you did. Would he stammer and offer the complete lack of an explanation? Or would he be prepared to offer a convoluted and esoteric chain of reasoning that somehow justified his outrageous request? Probably the latter. And think about what would happen then. Having anchored you on his unreasonable request, then explained it in a way that drives the anchor deeper into your sand, would he now reduce his number? No, you’d be giving him something much closer to $35 than whatever it really costs.

“But don’t I need to need to understand his calculations?” you’re thinking. “And don’t I have to ask ‘why’ to do that?” Well, yes, but not yet. Assuming you’re also interested in parting with a reasonable amount of money, I’d suggest taking this opportunity to make an aggressive counteroffer yourself. “How much does a movie cost these days, Buck? Like $10 with the popcorn, right?” Now, what is Buck likely to do? Thrown off by your gambit, he’s likely to make some concessions. First, he might ask for $30, then (when offered $10 again), $25.

But suppose he got stuck at $25—was completely unwilling to budge. You’re now staring at a huge gap between your $10 and his rigid $25. Good time to ask why? Yes. When your counterpart has already conceded and is now stuck, it’s a good idea to ask why again—now to understand the source of the rigidity. So suppose you asked “Why 25?” Maybe you asked it again, and asked it a couple different ways. “Because I have a date.” he finally muttered, embarrassed.

Voila! It all makes sense. You now know where he’s going (from why #1) and with whom (why #3); any parent of any teenager knows how essential this information can be. But you’re also giving him a realistic amount to do so (by avoiding why #2). And seeing your Buck in the early stages of young love, you’re more than happy to do so.

Bottom line: It’s good to ask why at the beginning, if you’re trying to understand their motivations. It’s good to ask why at the end, if you’re trying avert an impasse. It’s not so good to ask why in the middle, right after you receive a first offer that obviously needs to come down.

How have your whys helped or hurt in the past?