The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.


In NLP, "anchoring" refers to the process of associating an internal response with some external or internal trigger so that the response may be quickly, and sometimes covertly, reaccessed. Anchoring is a process that on the surface is similar to the "conditioning" technique used by Pavlov to create a link between the hearing of a bell and salivation in dogs. By associating the sound of a bell with the act of giving food to his dogs, Pavlov found he could eventually just ring the bell and the dogs would start salivating, even though no food was given. In the behaviorist's stimulus-response conditioning formula, however, the stimulus is always an environmental cue and the response is always a specific behavioral action. The association is considered reflexive and not a matter of choice.

In NLP this type of associative conditioning has been expanded to include links between other aspects of experience than purely environment cues and behavioral responses. A remembered picture may become an anchor for a particular internal feeling, for instance. A touch on the leg may become an anchor for a visual fantasy or even a belief. A voice tone may become an anchor for a state of excitement or confidence. A person may consciously choose to establish and retrigger these associations for himself. Rather than being a mindless knee-jerk reflex, an anchor becomes a tool for self empowerment. Anchoring can be a very useful tool for helping to establish and reactivate the mental processes associated with creativity, learning, concentration and other important resources.

It is significant that the metaphor of an "anchor" is used in NLP terminology. The anchor of a ship or boat is attached by the members of the ships crew to some stable point in order to hold the ship in a certain area and keep it from floating away. The implication of this is that the cue which serves as a psychological "anchor" is not so much a mechanical stimulus which "causes" a response as it is a reference point that helps to stabilize a particular state. To extend the analogy fully, a ship could be considered the focus our consciousness on the ocean of experience. Anchors serve as reference points which help us to find a particular location on this experiential sea and to hold our attention there and keep it from drifting.

The process of establishing an anchor basically involves associating two experiences together in time. In behavioral conditioning models, associations become more strongly established through repetition. Repetition may also be used to strengthen anchors as well. For example, you could ask someone to vividly re-experience a time she was very creative and pat her shoulder while she is thinking of the experience. If you repeat this once or twice the pat on shoulder will begin to become linked to the creative state. Eventually a pat on the shoulder will automatically remind the person of the creative state.

'Anchoring' and Learning

A good way to begin to understand the uses of anchoring is to consider how they can be applied in the context of teaching and learning. The process of anchoring, for instance, is an effective means to solidify and transfer learning experiences. In its simplest form, 'anchoring' involves establishing an association between an external cue or stimulus and an internal experience or state, as in the example of Pavlov ringing the bell for his dogs. A lot of learning relates to conditioning, and conditioning relates to the kind of stimuli that become attached to reactions. An anchor is a stimulus that becomes associated with a learning experience. If you can anchor something in a classroom environment, you can then bring the anchor to the work environment as, minimally, an associative reminder of what was learned.

As an example of this, they did a research study with students in classrooms. They had students learn some kind of task in a certain classroom. Then they split the class in half and put one of the groups in a different room. Then they tested them. The ones who were in the same room where they had learned the material did better on the exams than the students who had been moved to a different room. Presumably this was because there were environmental cues that were associated with the material they had been learning.

We have probably all been in the situation of experiencing something that we wanted to remember, but when we go into a new environment where all the stimuli are so different, it's easier to forget. By developing the ability to use certain kinds of anchors, teachers and learners can facilitate the generalization of learning. There will certainly be a greater possibility that learning will be transferred if one can also transfer certain stimuli.

There's another aspect to anchoring related to the fact Pavlov's dog had to be in a certain state for the bell to mean anything. The dogs had to be hungry; then Pavlov could anchor the stimulus to the response. Similarly, there is an issue related to what state learners are in, in order to effectively establish an anchor. For instance, a transparency is a map, but it's also a stimulus. That is, it gives information, but it can also be a trigger for a reference experience. An effective teacher needs to know when to send a message or not to send a message. If people have a sudden insight - an "Aha!" - and you turn on a transparency, it is going to be received in a different way and associated in a different way than if people are struggling with a concept.

Timing can be very important. It is important for a teacher to time the presentation of material in relation to the state of his or her learners. If the teacher has a cognitive package to present, such as a key word or a visual map, he or she must wait for the moment that the 'iron gets hot'. When the teacher senses that there's a kind of a readiness, or a surge, or an openness in the group, at that moment he or she would introduce the concepts or show the key words. Because the point of anchoring is that a teacher is not just giving information, he or she is also providing stimuli that gets connected to the reference experiences of the learners. This is why stimuli that are symbolic are often more effective anchors.

The kinds of questions that a teacher needs to answer are, "When do I introduce this idea?" and "How strongly do I want people to experience it, or respond to it?" For example, if the teacher is facilitating a discussion, an issue might arise that is deeply related to beliefs and values that is strongly felt, especially by some people. In that moment, if the presenter puts information out, it becomes connected with that degree of interest or involvement.

The point is that anchoring is not simply a mechanical matter of presenting cognitive maps and giving examples. There's also the issue of the state of commitment or interest of the learners, as well. Sometimes a teacher will want to let a discussion go on, not just because people are making logical connections, but because the energy level of the group is intensifying, and you want to capture that moment. In other times, if the state of the group is low, the teacher might not want to anchor that state to certain topics or reference experiences.

People may use anchors to reaccess resourceful states in themselves as well as in others. It is possible for a teachers, for instance, to use a self-anchor to get into the state he or she desires to be in as a leader of a group. A self-anchor could be an internal image of something that, when thought about, automatically brings on that state. Somebody one is close to, for instance. One could also make a self anchor through an example. Talking about one's children, or some experience that has a lot of very deep associations.

In summary, anchors employ the process of association to:

Cues that are anchors can help to transfer learnings to other contexts. The 'cue' used as an anchor may be either verbal, non-verbal or symbolic (a person may even become an anchor). Common objects and cues from a person's home or working environment may make effective anchors. Some common types of cues used to create anchors include:

Establishing an Anchor

One of the skills of effective teaching or learning is being able to 'imprint' something by catching those moments when information will be associated with positive or powerful internal states. Pavlov found there were two ways of creating associations. One was through repetition, the continual association between a stimulus and a response. The other had to do with connecting an intense internal state to a particular stimulus. People, for example, people remember the details of highly emotional experiences with no repetition at all. The association is made immediately.

These are two important aspects related to establishing an anchor. One is the continued reinforcement of the anchor. Pavlov found that if he started ringing the bell and not giving the food, eventually the response to the bell would diminish and fail. For an anchor to last for a long time, it has to be in some way reinforced. This is an important issue with respect to continued self-learning.

The other aspect has to do with the richness and intensity of the experience one is attempting to anchor.

As an example, let's say a couple is preparing for childbirth. The husband is usually in the role of the coach to the expectant mother. One of the challenges of being a coach during birth is that the experience is so intense that it's hard to transfer everything you know because the real situation is so different than the one in which you practice. You practice breathing and the various other techniques at home in a comfortable state, but when the reality happens its a completely different situation that makes it difficult to remember all the techniques that you have practiced.

One helpful strategy is to make an anchor. When the expectant mother is in the state that she wants to be able to maintain throughout the birth process, she can make an internal anchor, such as a symbol. She could be asked, "What would symbolize this state?" Let's say she imagines a nautilus shell - a snail shell that has a big opening on the bottom. The couple could then actually buy one of these shells. Then during all their practice sessions, the expectant mother could focus her eyes on the shell. The shell may then be brought into the hospital during the actual child birth process, and be an ongoing trigger to help generalize the desired state to the actual birthing process.

As another example, let's say a team leader is trying to get a group into a positive state for brainstorming, and has done a very nice job of creating a motivated state. The question is, how can the leader anchor that state so that he or she can get back that same degree of motivation more quickly in the future? One way is through particular behaviors, such as a special eye contact, or facial expressions, that could be used again later to trigger that state. Another way is to use something external as a means to draw the focus of the group - like pointing to a flip chart or referring to a transparency.

Anchoring-Elaboration Cycle

An anchor is often best established by first associating the cue with the experience, then going through a cycle in which the experience is continually elaborated and the anchor repeated. The 'elaboration - anchoring' cycle is a useful way to reinforce learnings and associations.

After the initial association is made, the communicator or teacher will want to 'elaborate' the number of connections by stimulating and anchoring associations such as, "How does this apply to your work?" "How does this relate to your family?" "How does this relate to a friend, or an ongoing situation?" This is not simply a repetitive reinforcement, it's an enrichment and an elaboration of the space of experience which one is trying to anchor to something.

The more that can be elaborated or elicited with respect to a particular concept or reference experience, the stronger that anchor will tend to be. For example, music often affects people because of what was happening their when they first heard a particular song. Something important or something significant in their life was going on and the song happened to be on the radio. This is the essence of 'nostalgia'.

One can anchor by returning to specific examples, stories, or jokes. Think about being with a group of friends. When you repeat a story about some experience, you recreate the same feeling that you had when you were together before.

The word "anchoring" is itself an anchor. During this discussion, for example, we have been connecting a number of different reference experiences to the term 'anchor'. 'Anchoring' is the term we keep coming back to elaborating the richness of its meaning.

Natural Anchors

Natural anchors relate to the fact that not all stimuli are equally effective as anchors. We form associations with respect to some cues more readily than others. Clearly, the ability to make associations with respect to environmental cues in order to choose appropriate responses is vital to the survival of all higher animals. As a result, various species of animals develop more sensitivity to certain types of stimuli than others. Rats, for instance, who are given two water dishes containing safe or tainted drinking water, learn very quickly to distinguish the safe from the tainted water if the tainted water is a different color than the safe water. It takes them much longer to learn to distinguish the two if they are simply put in two containers of different shapes. Color is a more "natural" associative anchor for rats than shape. Similarly, Pavlov found that his dogs could be conditioned to salivate much more quickly and eaily with sound as a stimulus than if visual cues, such as colors and shapes, were used as a conditioning stimuli.

Natural anchors are probably related to basic neurological capabilities. Words, for instance, are able to form powerful anchors for humans, but not for other species. Other mammals (provided they can hear) respond to tone of voice more than the specific words being used. This is presumeably because they lack the neural apparatus to be able to recognize verbal distinctions to the same degree of detail that humans do. Even in humans, some sense organs and parts of the body have more discriminative capacity than others. A person's forearm, for example, has less tactile nerve endings than the palm of the hand. Thus, a person is able to make finer discriminations with the fingers and hands than with his or her arms.

The awareness of "natural anchors" is important in selecting types of stimuli to be used for anchoring. Different types of media can be used to help make certain types of associations more easily. With people, individuals may have certain natural tendencies toward certain types of anchors because of their natural or learned representational abilities. A visually oriented person will be more sensitive to visual cues; kinesthetically oriented people may make associations more easily with tactile cues; individuals who are auditorally oriented will be reponsive to subtle sounds, and so on. Smells often form powerful anchors for people. This is partially because the sense of smell is wired directly to the association areas of the brain.

Covert Anchors

Sometimes the most powerful anchors for people are those in which the stimulus is outside of awareness. These are called "covert" anchors. The power of covert anchors comes from the fact that they bypass conscious filtering and interference. This can be useful if a person (or group) is struggling to make a change because his or her conscious mind keeps getting in the way. It also makes covert anchors a powerful form of influence.

Covert anchors are often established with respect to stimuli that are from an individual's least conscious representational system. A highly visual person, for instance, may be unaware of subtle shifts in tone of voice. Voice, then, may become a rich source of unconscious cues for that person.

Anchors as Meta Messages

Anchoring is often considered to be a purely mechanical process, but it is important to keep in mind that we are not merely robots. A touch on the shoulder or arm my certainly be a stimulus from which to form and anchor, but it can be interpreted at the same time as a "meta message" about context and relationship. Many cues are not simply triggers for responses but are symbolic messages as well. Placing one's on the upper center of another persons's chest (over the heart) is a stimulus, and is also a very symbolic gesture.

These types of symbolic and relational messages can be either a help or hinderence to anchoring, depending on whether or not they are aligned with they type of response one is attempting to anchor.

As a rule of thumb, for example, if you are using kinesthetic anchors, it is better to establish anchors for negative states toward the periphery of the body (i.e., knees, forearms, or locational anchors). Anchors for positive states can take on more intensity if they are established on areas of the body closer to a person's center or core.

Well-Formedness Conditions for Anchoring

The "Well-Formedness Conditions" for anchoring summarize the key elements necessary for establishing an effective anchor. They essentially relate to important characteristics of both the stimulus and response one is attempting to pair up, to the relationship between stimulus and response, and to the context surrounding the stimulus and response.

1. Intensity and "Purity" of the Response

Intensity has to do with how fully a particular state or response has been accessed. Even from Aristotle's time it was observed that the more vivid and intense a particular response was, the more easily it was remembered, and the more quickly it became associated with other stimuli. It was easier for Pavlov to "condition" hungry dogs to salivate, for example, than satiated dogs. If a person has accessed only a small amount of the state or experience you are anchoring, then the anchor can only be associated with that particular amount. Incidentally, "intensity" does not simply have to do with a person's degree of emotional arousal. A person may be in a very strong disassociated state, in which he or she feels no emotional reaction at all.

"Purity" of response has to do with whether or not the response or experience you are attempting to anchor has been "contaminated" by other irrelevant or conflicting thoughts, feelings or reactions. It is possible that a person may very intensely experience the state to be anchored, but also mix it with other states and experiences. Another way to state this condition is that you will get back exactly what you anchor. As they say in the parlance of computer programming, "Garbage in, garbage out." If reaching out to anchor someone with a touch makes him or her suspicious, then that suspicion becomes part of the state that is anchored. If you ask a person to think of something positive, but that person is recalling a disassociated memory of the event, and judging whether or not he or she has chosen the right event, then you will be anchoring disassociation and judgment.

2. Uniqueness of the Stimulus used as the "Anchor"

The condition of "uniqueness of stimulus" relates to the fact that we are always making associations between cues in the world around us and our internal states and reactions. Some stimuli are so common that they make ineffective anchors, largely because they have already been associated with so many other contexts and responses. Shaking hands or touching a person's shoulder are much less unique stimuli than a touch on the middle digit of the little finger. Unique stimuli mae better and longer lasting anchors.

It is important to note that "uniqueness" is not the same as "intensity". A more intense stimulus is not necessarily a more effective anchor. A more intense stimulus may be unique, but very subtle, even unconscious stimuli (such as the subtle smells and sensations that trigger allergic reactions), may be unique and thus very strong anchors.

3. Timing of the Pairing of Stimulus and Response

The relationship in time between stimulus and response is one of the key conditions of effective association. According to the basic 'laws' of association, when two experiences occur close enough together a sufficient number of times, the two experiences become associated with one another. Studies involving classical conditioning have shown that this association proceeds only forward in time; that is, the stimulus (the bell) must precede the response (salivating when eating food).

There also seems to be an optimal interval at which various types of associations are most easily made. For quick reflexes such as an eyeblink, this interval is about one-half second; longer or shorter intervals are less effective. For slower reactions such as salivation the interval is longer, perhaps two seconds or so. In learning verbal associations timing is much less critical than in classical conditioning. Verbal pairs are learned with almost equal ease whether presented simultaneously or separated by several seconds.

In NLP, the optimal anchoring period is determined in relationship to the peak of the intensity of the response or state one is anchoring. It is generally taught that the stimulus should be initiated when the response to be anchored had reached about two-thirds of its peak. If possible, the anchoring stimulus should be held until just after the state has stabilized or begins or diminish. In this way, the association is created between the stimulus and the crest of the response. To do this, the response must be "calibrated," so that the behavioral charactersitics of the response are known before the anchoring is attempted.

Anchoring Stimulus

It is Best to Provide the Anchoring Stimulus Just Before the Intensity of the Response Reaches Its Peak

4. Context Surrounding the Anchoring Experience

Context is an important influence on anchoring that is often ignored. The context or environement surrounding an interaction contains many cues which may effect the anchoring process. Even though they are not the primary focus of attention, environmental cues can become anchors. In what is called "context association," the general environment may begin to elicit a response that is being conditioned to a specific stimulus. (Context association is the basis for "locational anchors.")

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that Pavlov first accidently discovered the notion of conditioned reflexes as a result of contextual conditioning. For his research on digestion, Pavlov needed to collect saliva from his laboratory animals. He stimulated saliva flow by placing meat powder in the dog's mouth; soon he noticed the dog would begin salivating at the sight of the experimenter, in the expectation of receiving meat powder.

In some cases, contextual stimuli may combine with the primary anchoring stimulus, making the environment part of the overall anchoring experience. Because of this, many anchors are "context dependent." That is, they work more effectively in the context in which they were initially established.

The influence of context relates to the process of 'Learning II'. In addition to being part of the anchoring stimulus, context shapes perceptual filters and attention. Anchoring is a classical 'Learning I' process, but humans and animals are not robots. Whether or not a context is interpreted as being "safe," "important," "unfaimiliar," "a learning context," "a place to explore," etc. will determine which type of stimuli people pay attention to, and how readily and easily certain types of anchors will be established. From this perspective it is important that the rapport between the individuals involved in the anchoring process and the environment be condusive to the type of anchors one intends to establish.

Also see the NLP Pattern of the Month or the Archives if you are interested in checking out NLP in more depth.
You also may want to visit the Anchor Point Page. Anchor Point is the practical journal of NLP.

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