What is anchoring?

Prior knowledge required: Representational systems, Managing your state

When two things commonly occur together, the appearance of one will bring the other to mind.


Anchoring is a basic Pavlovian conditioning of the nervous system. Any time a person is in an intense state and a stimulus is applied, then the state and the stimulus will be linked neurologically. It is a form of associative learning. The associations we make through this kind of learning have a huge impact on the quality of our lives and how successful we are, and NLP has developed several tools and techniques to create and change these associations.

Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) made the concept of classical conditioning famous with his experiments on dogs. He was studying the gastric processes in dogs and noticed that they started to salivate even before they received food. This led to a series of experiments in which he used a bell to call the dogs to their food. After only a few times, the bell produced salivation, even if there was no food. He called this association a conditioned response.

In effect, a neutral stimulus, the bell, had become a conditioned stimulus that produced a response based on the conditioning. In NLP, this conditioned stimulus is called an anchor. NLP also uses the terms ‘firing the anchor’ or ‘triggering the anchor’, which mean applying the stimulus that has been conditioned.

The conditioned stimulus, or anchor, can be any kind of sensory input in any combinations of the representational systems.


Here are some examples. Consider each one and notice your reaction or the way you would respond.

The first example is a stormy sky. Imagine yourself looking out at a really stormy sky with that particular colour of the clouds. How do you feel? What is your reaction?

Now go through the same process with each of the following:

  • Visual: red traffic light (or an ornage one), brand image (for example Nike, Coca Cola), beach and palm trees
  • Auditory: ambulance siren, radio jingle, ‘they are playing our tune!’, sound of waves, your mother’s voice
  • Touch: stroking a cat, holding a bat or golf club, sun on your face
  • Smell: perfumes, aviation fuel, smell of the gym
  • Taste: chocolate, favourite drink, a specific food

Some of these will trigger a reaction; some won’t. Think of some more triggers that apply to you. This may not be so easy to do, as the responses feel so natural that we often don’t notice them even when they are occurring.

The response when the anchor is triggered could be good or bad, useful or not. At one extreme, it could be a phobic reaction to the sight of something, such as a spider scuttling across the floor. At the other end of the scale, the response could be a sense of calm and peaceful happiness as the result of a certain smell, such as incense or new-mown grass. It just depends on the associations you have made.

These are all learned responses. They were not there when you were born, and yet they are so obvious and widespread that you hardly notice them. They seem part of who you are. As we go through life, we all develop thousands of different anchors that associate one thing with another. There are some archetypal ones that are common to most of us, such as red for danger and green for go.

Key point

An understanding of anchoring is vital if you want to make significant improvements in your life.

An anchor will change your state. Your state will govern the kinds of behaviours you choose and thus your results. You, and what you do will be anchors for others and trigger responses in them, which in turn will trigger responses in you, thus determining the quality of the relationship.

How anchors are created

Anchors are created naturally all the time. Some last for our lifetimes, and others fade after only a short time. The longevity of an anchor depends on the conditions in place at the time it was created. Anchors can also be created on purpose and NLP has evolved several techniques that can be used to create beneficial anchors, change anchors and remove negative ones.

First, let’s look at how anchors are created in everyday life as this will help us understand what we need to do to purposefully create lasting and useful anchors.

Intense state

Anytime someone is an intense and associated state, whether it is a pleasant state or an unpleasant one, anchors are being created. This is because we will always make associations and links between that intense state and what we are sensing around us at the time. The things that we link the state to will differ from person to person and will depend on

  • Their map of the world
  • The preferences they have regarding representational systems
  • How they filter their sensory information
  • And even previously-set anchors.

Given the same situation, one person might link their intense state to the person standing in front of them, another to the ‘feel’ of the room, yet another to the smell of the flowers on the windowsill. The link could be to a full description in all the senses of what they are sensing, or it could be a single aspect, like the fact that the other person is wearing a brown baseball cap. Another variation is that some links are made to a more general class of stimuli, so instead of a brown baseball cap, it generalises to any hat.

Some anchors, even though long lasting, may never get triggered, as the conditioned stimulus never occurs again in that person’s life. The anchor lies dormant.

Some anchors are such common features of a person’s life – for example, blue sky or the feel of a handshake – that they get diluted by so many other links that, except in rare cases, they soon lose effectiveness.

  • When he looks at me like that it reminds me of my first boss who was always angry.
  • When people get too close to me on the tube it reminds me of being shut in a cupboard as a child.
  • Being in a group like this reminds me of being at school and being ashamed to say ‘I don’t understand.’

Note that these are all conscious examples. Many anchors will trigger a response although we have no conscious idea of where or when the anchor was created.


Repetition will also condition a stimulus so that it becomes an anchor, even if the state is not intense. Repetition coupled with an intense state will create an incredibly strong and durable anchor.

Repetition is the route that the advertisers use to make a link between a nice state and their product. They show a person having a good time or a happy successful life and hope that we will feel good and think ‘that’s what I want’. They then show their logo or brand name or play their jingle and hope that if they do this frequently enough, we will make the link.


The movie Jaws created such powerful anchors that huge numbers of people who saw it developed a fear of swimming in the ocean or responded with fear to the very recognisable signature tune. The movie elicited states of fear in the audience many times with clever camera angles and music, and the audience then linked this fear with what they were experiencing. (The anchors set by a movie will be either visual or sound links.)