Tip #618:  Our Attraction to Numbers

“The value of having numbers-data- is that they aren’t subject to someone else’s interpretation. The are just numbers. You can decide what they mean for you.”  Emily Oster

A “2 for 1” sale. “101 places to see before you die.” We seem to have an attraction to numbers. Perhaps it is because we like to grab onto absolutes in a world of uncertainty. If we can count it, it must be trustworthy and true.

What started my thinking about the attraction of numbers was my response to a webinar announcement. It promised that I would learn “Five levels of leadership” and I couldn’t resist registering for it. I want to know what they are!

Think about all of the ways that numbers are used to motivate us to buy or do something. We hear numbers all the time in commercials and advertisements:

  • “1 in 10 doctors recommend…”
  • “5 secrets your wife doesn’t want you to know”
  • “Lose 20 pounds in 4 weeks”
  • “3 paths to enlightenment”
  • “A 7 step journey to better health”
  • “Put dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes”
  • “Get 2% interest on your savings account”
  • “380 users have given it 5 stars”
  • “10% off”
  • “They won the game by 50 points!”

This list could go on and on.

We are fooled by numbers. For example, we aim for the gas station that promises $1.99 9/10 a gallon because that seems so much cheaper than $2.00 a gallon. We jump to buy something that has 99 cents in the cost. Saving a penny satisfies an unconscious or conscious need to be thrifty and virtuous.

We gladly throw 2 packages of crackers into our grocery cart when there is a 2 for 1 sale, even if crackers were not on our shopping list. I recently purchased 5 bottles of soda because they were “5 for $5. It seemed like such a steal until I realized that I was paying more for each bottle than I would typically pay.

We are drawn to items purporting to be on sale at x% of the original price. We rarely stop to determine if the “sale price” is really saving us any money.

We could simply recognize the best pie at the fair with a blue ribbon, but “1st place” winner is much more meaningful to many of us.

Consider the “4-minute mile.” Few of us probably know exactly how far 1 mile is, but we do know that 4 minutes is fast- so we sit in awe.

Titling the show “60 minutes” instead of “1 hour” gave it a sort of gravitas. Really, isn’t 60 of anything more than 1 thing?

“10 minutes and counting” makes each minute seem important. The count-down “10, 9, 8, etc.” gives us a thrill of anticipation.

We ask people to “pick a number between 1 and x” to decide who will receive a perk or a prize. We don’t say “pick a flower” or “pick an animal.” Numbers are finite, flowers and animals are not.

You are wondering how we could possibly choose the person who guesses an animal that comes closest to our chosen animal. However, we could choose on the basis of size (close in size), characteristics, (both have antlers) or habitat (both live in a jungle), etc. However, that becomes very subjective and may not satisfy everyone.

We use numbers because we can easily choose the person who guesses a number that is closest to the desired number.

We like numbers because they are clear and unambiguous. A 5 is always a 5. An 8 is inarguably closer to 10 than a 3.

But the next time you are drawn to buy or do something because of an attractive number, think before you take action. We can be too easily manipulated by numbers.

May your learning be sweet.



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