How to Use the Anchoring Bias for Negotiating Salary

When it comes to negotiating salary, most of us need all the help we can get. lose saving

I’m convinced that 90% of learning how to negotiate is just getting past the implosive mixture of feelings that keep you from asking in the first place: guilt, shame, inadequacy, intimidation.

There are, however, a few negotiating tips and tricks that can help you beat the fear and find the courage to ask.

I recently wrote an article over at New York Magazine on how some states and cities are banning the job history question in interviews.

In some areas, employers can no longer ask questions like “how much did you earn in your last job?”

Whether or not you agree with this kind of legislation, it’s important for job seekers because of something called the anchoring bias.

I was fascinated at how effective anchoring can be in the negotiating salary.

Learn How the Bias Works

The anchoring bias is the tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information to form a decision about another.

You’ve encountered whether you realize it or not.

Let’s say you go to dinner.

You want Buffalo Wild Wings but your friend insists on a new fancy restaurant in town, Le Cigare Volant.

So you go, reluctantly, and vow to get your wing fix another time.  

You sit down, look at the menu and, oh hey, they have a special highlighted–yowza! $50 for a steak?

Only an idiot would spend that much on a steak, you think.

You peruse the rest of the menu.

Oh hey, there’s a cheeseburger for $14.

That’s much less than $50.

That’s not too bad, you think, and you buy the cheeseburger. 

Restaurants use this tactic all the time.

They throw you off with a really expensive item, anchoring you to that price so that when you see a $14 cheeseburger, you’re not as horrified.

It’s not just restaurants, either.

Car dealerships use it, retailers use it, and yes, employers use it, too, for negotiating salary.

That’s why the “how much do you make?” question is so important.

It serves as an anchor. calculator coin money save debt

The problem is if you earn $40,000 in your current job and you’ve improved your skills and experience enough that your professional value is now $70,000 according to the market rate, you’re stuck with a crap anchor.

If an employer asks you this question, consider bringing up the market rate for your job title, depending on your current skill.

Answering the question based on that.

Instead of “My current salary is $40,000,” you might reply with, “The going rate for my job and skill set is $70,000, and my current salary is $40,000. So I’m definitely looking to grow.”

You still answered the question, but you also gave them another number to anchor.

And yes, two anchors can work together (more on this in a bit).

Consider Throwing Out the First Number

There’s a lot of back and forth on this piece of advice when it comes to negotiating salary.

As my former editor Alan Henry pointed out, you shouldn’t be too afraid to throw out this number, though.

In fact, some employers insist on it.

Even if they’re not asking you about your salary history, they may ask you what your expectations are.

And while some experts suggest you should just avoid answering it, there’s a case for throwing out the first number: you get to set the anchor.

Here’s how puts it:

…some research has indicated that the result of a negotiation is often closer to what the first mover proposed than to the number the other party had in mind; the first number uttered in a negotiation (so long as it is not ridiculous) has the effect of “anchoring the conversation.”

In other words, throwing out the first number gives you the opportunity to use the anchoring bias in your favor.

Use a Salary Range

Finally, consider using a range when you’re negotiating salary.

Studies show that this is better than just working with a single anchor.

Researchers call it “tandem anchoring.” money world

When you offer a range of, say, $60,000 to $75,000, employers are more likely to stick to the higher end of that range.

The study’s author told me that there are “hidden politeness concerns.”

People want to shape offers on the higher end of your range because it’s polite.

This is why it might help to bring up what the market rate if you’re asked about your low current salary.

Cognitive biases like these are always fascinating.

But they’re even more fascinating when you can figure out how to mold them to work for you rather than against you.

It’s great to just get up the courage to ask, but if you can be strategic about it, even better.


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Kristin Wong is a freelance writer who has written for MSN, Bankrate, and NBC News. She regularly contributes to Lifehacker and Mental_floss and is a recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists Northwest Excellence in Journalism award. Kristin chronicles her experiences as a full-time freelance writer at her blog. Visit:

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