Are you guilty of using weather forecasts?

There is a grand Senate runoff election here in Georgia on Tuesday. For the past week I have been regularly checking the weather forecast for December 6th. As a meteorologist, I know how to assess the evolving forecast, but many people are guilty”anchoring.” What is it and is it your fault?

The formal term for anchoring is anchoring bias. There are several representations of anchorage prestress. The Decision Lab website describes it as “a cognitive bias that causes us to over-rely on the first information we get on an issue.” I see this regularly with weather forecasts. We saw that recently with Hurricane Ian, and we see it routinely here in the south with snow forecasts.

People will look at the forecast 5 to 7 days ahead and then “anchor” themselves to that exact scenario, even though weather systems are dynamic. As the Decision Lab website goes on to say, “When we make plans or estimates about something, we interpret newer information from our anchor’s reference point, rather than seeing it objectively.” This approach can often bias a bad decision or interpretation. For example, many people interpreted Hurricane Ian (2022) as likely to hit the Tampa Bay area, yet the Lee County area was days before landfall in the cone of uncertainty and under storm surge warnings in the evolving forecasts.

Simplypsychology.org describes anchoring bias as “an erroneous heuristic that occurs when one focuses on information when making a decision or solving a problem.” However, the site acknowledges that incorrect final estimates or decisions are often based on initial values or information is linked. Weather processes will always be subject to uncertainty. For this reason, “Percent Chance of Rain” and “Hurricane Cone of Uncertainty” are used instead of specific information at an exact location.

From here, try adopting these best practices:

  • Watch the evolving forecast if you have something planned a few days to a week in advance. Don’t “anchor” your plans to what you see a week ahead.
  • If you’re faced with a rapidly evolving severe weather hazard, assess the situation before you go to bed or head out. Don’t “anchor” yourself to something you consumed earlier in the day.
  • Always have a “night plan” for the weather before you go to bed.
  • Don’t make any “wishes” because the prognosis you saw early matches what you’re hoping for.

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