At the beginning of the film Fargo, written and directed by the Cohen brothers, this statement appears:
The movie tells the tale of Jerry Lundegaard, an ordinary man in such desperate financial straits he hires the kidnapping of his own wife to collect ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. The violent misadventures that follow stretch the imagination.
Yet you know it all actually happened because of the opening statement. And indeed, the movie has a realistic tone and superb acting that make it feel like reality is unfolding before you on the screen.
I continued to be mesmerized for years by Jerry’s story, re-watching the movie, wondering how someone could be as naively dishonest.
Recently, a TV series, also called Fargo and associated with the Cohen’s, aired. It started each episode with the same statement about how this actually happened in Minnesota.
Enthralled, I watched the misadventures of another naive Minnesota man who became entangled with criminals, deceit, and murder.
I began to wonder what was wrong with the people of Minnesota. What strange seed of violence grew in their homespun, colloquial manners?
At one point in the show, a massacre occurred in the city of Fargo. Dozens of people shot in an office. At that moment I experienced a wave of doubt…surly I would have heard about this in the news. This really happened?
So I researched it. To my surprise, I found that everything – the movie and the series – was total fiction. None of it ever took place.
Now, read the statement that opens Fargo again. It details a year, a place. It states clearly that there are survivors, it’s told exactly as it occurred.
If you are a long-time fan of Fargo and believed all this to be true, you might be feeling duped. I did – at first.
Are the Cohen’s out of line by making this statement? Why is it there? Did they overreach artistic license?
The reason this statement opens Fargo connects to the psychological phenomenon of anchoring, which states we have a cognitive bias that influences us to rely heavily on the first information we get.
Anchoring is used all the time in sales. When you buy shirts, you never pay the suggested, full price. You get the “sale” price at 50% off. In fact, the suggested price is an anchor. When you see it, it makes it seem like the 50% off price is a better deal.
We create these biases for ourselves. If you usually shoot 100 for a round of golf, then go out and shoot an 87, you anchor yourself to that score. When you go back out and shoot another 103, you’ll feel like you had a poor – rather than average for you – round.
The experience of watching Fargo is transformed by the belief that it’s a true story. You’re more engaged, more amazed, more energized by the suspense of the tale. The anchor of reality lends credence to performance of the actors. Take this scene where Jerry’s selling a car. It’s so realistic you think you’re catching a glimpse into the lives of actual people:
You cringe as actor Gary Houston struggles to blurt out the “f” word – he’s that gentle neighbor who hasn’t sworn at someone in decades.
Beyond the fine acting, anchoring makes this totally realistic. You believe it happened. This is real life, not a drama.
You may be concerned that I’ve blown Fargo for you – now you know it’s just a movie.
But don’t worry, anchoring is so effective because it works on a subconscious level. You probably realize that Kohl’s never expected to sell that shirt for $80. It’s a mark-up – the shirt is worth $40 so that’s what they sell it for.
But the $80, once seen, takes root. It’s literally anchored in your mind, effecting your perception of value.
You’ll watch Fargo and still – almost – believe it really happened. Anchoring is a clever strategy that exposes an underlying psychological response we all have.
Written by: Scott Yoder