Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 322–349 | Cite as

The anchoring bias reflects rational use of cognitive resources

  • Falk Lieder
  • Thomas L. Griffiths
  • Quentin J. M. Huys
  • Noah D. Goodman
Theoretical Review


Cognitive biases, such as the anchoring bias, pose a serious challenge to rational accounts of human cognition. We investigate whether rational theories can meet this challenge by taking into account the mind’s bounded cognitive resources. We asked what reasoning under uncertainty would look like if people made rational use of their finite time and limited cognitive resources. To answer this question, we applied a mathematical theory of bounded rationality to the problem of numerical estimation. Our analysis led to a rational process model that can be interpreted in terms of anchoring-and-adjustment. This model provided a unifying explanation for ten anchoring phenomena including the differential effect of accuracy motivation on the bias towards provided versus self-generated anchors. Our results illustrate the potential of resource-rational analysis to provide formal theories that can unify a wide range of empirical results and reconcile the impressive capacities of the human mind with its apparently irrational cognitive biases.


Bounded rationality Heuristics Cognitive biases Probabilistic reasoning Anchoring-and-adjustment Rational process models 



This research was supported by grant number ONR MURI N00014-13-1-0341 from the Office of Naval Research (TLG and NDG), grant number FA-9550-10-1-0232 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (TLG), and a John S. McDonnell Scholar Award (NDG).


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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Falk Lieder
    • 1
    • 2
  • Thomas L. Griffiths
    • 1
    • 5
  • Quentin J. M. Huys
    • 2
    • 4
  • Noah D. Goodman
    • 3
  1. 1.Helen Wills Neuroscience InstituteUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Translational Neuromodeling Unit, Institute for Biomedical EngineeringUniversity of Zürich and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)ZürichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  4. 4.Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Hospital of PsychiatryUniversity of ZürichZürichSwitzerland
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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