Anchoring Legal Standards Academic Article uri icon


  • This Article presents the first empirical study on the way in which irrelevant anchors influence the interpretation of vague legal standards. A large body of psychological research demonstrates that when people make judgments on a continuum, they are often affected by meaningless anchors. Building on this body of work, legal scholars have shown that judicial decisions related to remedies (i.e., damages and penalties) are also influenced by such anchors. This Article extends this insight and hypothesizes that the process of interpreting vague legal norms is subject to an anchoring effect as well. To test this hypothesis, the Article presents a series of stylized experiments that measure and compare participants’ interpretation of a vague norm after they have been exposed to irrelevant anchors. Overall, the results confirm the proposed hypothesis and suggest that the content of substantive legal rules might be altered by anchors. This effect is documented in numerous legal settings and across both expert (i.e., experienced lawyers) and non-expert (i.e., students) populations. Furthermore, the effect is shown to exist when participants express judgments about a hypothetical scenario and when they make decisions with ramifications for others. Based on these findings, the Article revisits several long-standing legal debates and reevaluates their conclusions.

publication date

  • January 1, 2016