Anchoring (NLP)

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Anchoring is a neuro-linguistic programming term for the process by which memory recall, state change or other responses become associated with (anchored to) some stimulus, in such a way that perception of the stimulus (the anchor) leads by reflex to the anchored response occurring. The stimulus may be quite neutral or even out of conscious awareness, and the response may be either positive or negative. They are capable of being formed and reinforced by repeated stimuli, and thus are analogous to classical conditioning.

Steinbach (1984) describes anchoring as one trial learning which forms one of the basic presuppositions of NLP stating that "A therapist can teach a patient the association between one response and another, or between an external stimulus and an internal response in one trial." [1]

Basic anchoring involves in essence, the elicitation of a strong congruent experience of a desired state, whilst using some notable stimulus (touch, word, sight) at the time this is most fully realized. In many cases, repetition of the stimulus will reassociate and restore the experience of the state.

There are refinements offered by setting anchors this way, and subtleties involved in order to both set them with precision, and to avoid accidentally neutralizing them in the process of setting them up.

Types of anchor

Anchors (the "trigger", or stimulus) can come in an infinitude of possible forms: verbal phrases, physical touches or sensations, certain sights and sounds, or internally, such as words one says to oneself, or memories and emotional states. An expansive view is that almost everything one perceives acts as an anchor, in the sense that perceiving it tends to trigger reflexively some thought or feeling or response.

Anchoring is a natural process that usually occurs without our awareness, and may have positive impact, or be maladaptive. For example, a voice tonality that resembles the characteristics of one's perception of an "angry voice" may not actually be as a result of anger, but will usually trigger an emotional response in the person perceiving the tonality to have the traits of anger.

There are certain speculations as to what criteria must be met before an Anchor can be properly formed. Most agree that the trigger must be

It is also important that reinforcement of an anchor (in other words, repeated formation with the aim of reinforcement) should have a "break" between each repeat, since the neurological 'lesson' is quite capable of working either way, and only one way is desired. In such instances precision and structure may determine the difference between success and failure.


An unusual use of anchoring was studied by Ellen Langer in her study of two groups of 75-80 year old men at Harvard University. For 5 days, both groups were isolated at a retreat, with one group engaged in a series of tasks encouraging them to think about the past in general (to write an autobiography, to discuss the past etc), and the other group engaged in a series of tasks which anchored them back into a specific past time - they wrote an autobiography up to 1959, describing that time as "now", watched 1959 movies, had 1959 music playing on the "radios", and lived with only 1959 artefacts. Before and after the 5 days, both groups were studied on a number of criteria associated with aging. While the first group stayed constant or actually deteriorated on these criteria, the second group dramatically improved on physical health measures such as joint flexibility, vision, and muscle breadth, as well as on IQ tests. They were anchored back physically to being 50 years old, by the sights and sounds of 1959. (Langer, "Mindfulness", Addison Wesley 1989)


NLP-style anchoring is a process that goes on around and within us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. Most of the time we are not consciously aware of why we feel as we do - indeed we may not realize we have responded in some cases, which makes it a much more powerful force in our lives.

Anchoring is used in NLP to facilitate state management. In this sense an anchor is set up to be triggered by a consciously chosen stimulus, deliberately linked by practice to a known useful state in order to provide reflexive access to that state at will. This may be used for exam nerves, overcoming fear, feelings such as happiness or determination, or to recollect how one will feel if a good resolution is kept. In Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention Karin Jordan (2006) states that "after the preliminary assessment has been completed, the therapist should help the client develop an anchor. The anchor concept is rooted in neurolinguistic programming (Bandler & Grinder, 1979) and can serve as a tool used by clients to get a break from the traumatic event. To help the client work through traumatic events, an observable/concrete resource should be used as an anchor."[2]

Anchoring is also used by skilful film makers to evoke suspense in the audience. Think of your own psychological changes that occurred when you heard the soundtrack’s amplified, pounding heartbeat rhythm in the moments leading up to each of the appearances of the huge killer shark in the movie ‘Jaws.’ What anchor was established in you by the crescendo of the sound of the music meeting the shark? Did your heartbeat increase? Did your palms begin to sweat? Did you have to see the shark, or was the thumping music enough to start your slide to the edge of your seat? Likewise the finale of classical symphonies, or "mood music" such as romantic, climactic, or apprehensive in films. Leitmotivs — recurring themes — in music and literature also serve to restimulate a previously established response.

For trauma victims, sudden noises or movement can serve as terrifying anchors capable of recollecting the traumatic experience. In this context, amongst other approaches, NLP might be used in a slightly different way - to desensitize the stimulus and perhaps instead also sensitize it to some more neutral or positive feeling.

Relationship therapy

I asked, "Is this why you got married? So you could argue? Is that what you were thinking about at the time?" Then I looked at him. I said, "When you first decided you wanted to spend your life with your wife, what was on your mind then?" Talk about something worth anchoring! Chheeeesssshhhh! Because I wanted that glow in his face, I anchored it. Then, every time she started to bring up a subject, I fired off [re-triggered] the anchor. he'd look at her with that look of passion. That will re-anchor the crap out of a relationship. I like that manoeuver. As I did this, the husband kept saying "I know you're anchoring me and it's not working." And she kept saying "It is working! It is working!" It's fun. [...] It wasn't about lost control. He was such a control freak he couldn't have some kinds of experiences he wanted. (Bandler, "Time for a change", p.133 - 134)

Political campaign usage

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican partisans began employing an unusually skillful use of language and advertising technique. The Willie Horton ads, for example, used an old NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) technique of "Anchoring via Submodalities," linking Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, at an unconscious level in the viewer’s mind, to Willie Horton by the use of color versus black-and-white footage, and background sound. After a few exposures to these psy-ops ads, people would "feel" Willie Horton when they "saw" Dukakis.

It was no accident. Toward the end of that campaign, I was presenting at an NLP conference in New York, and a colleague mentioned to me how the GOP had hired one of our mutual acquaintances to advise them on the tools of persuasion.



  1. ^ Steinbach, A. (1984). Neurolinguistic programming: a systematic approach to change. Canadian Family Physician, 30, 147-50. PMC 2153995
  2. ^ Karin Jordan (2006) The Scripto-Trauma Genogram: Technique for Working with Trauma Survivors’ Intrusive Memories. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention. Vol.6.1 Oxford University Press.