Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Why we don’t catch 39 winks

September 12th, 2011

Pi againWe’re surrounded by numbers. Most of them serve a practical purpose: I didn’t pick my street address because it sounded nice (although it does roll off the tongue) – the number represents where I live in relation to the other numbered buildings nearby. The model number on my computer isn’t a selling point, it’s a means of product identification.

Sometimes, of course, numbers are selling points. 7-Eleven was named to reflect the stores’ extended hours. 9Lives will keep your cats dodging their mortality for longer. Heinz 57 boasted of the number of products the company sold.

But what about V8? Or Chanel No. 5? Would it matter if they were V12 and Chanel No. 3?  Alberto VO31? 19 Up?

It might.

A recent study by Dan King and Chris Janiszewski looked at people’s feelings about numbers, especially as they appeared in product names – and they found that we have noticeable likes and dislikes for specific numbers.

00 to 99They first asked their study participants to rate how much they liked various numbers between one and a hundred when they were presented in random order. Some numbers were popular: 87% of the participants liked “100”, 76% liked “21” and 75% liked “25”. Other favourites included 2, 10, 20, 22 and 88.

On the other hand, in last place was “53”, which was only liked by 17% of the study participants. Other unpopular choices included 37, 41, 51, 57, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73 and 79.

See a pattern there? It isn’t just that popular numbers cluster at both ends of the range, with unlikeable numbers lumped into the middle. What King and Janiszewski observed was that we tend to like the numbers we’re most familiar with, and those tend to be the numbers that result when we do common multiplication problems.

For example: 2 times 6 (or 3 times 4) gets you 12, which scores an approval rating of 65%. But the only way to get to 51 (which only 21% of study participants liked) is by multiplying 17 and 3 and poor 73 (which scored even lower at 19%) is prime.

So what? I hear you thinking. If it’s not going to help me choose lottery numbers, what is the point?

The point, impatient reader, is that it affects how we feel about brand and company names. In one experiment, King and Janiszewski showed that participants liked an imaginary product called “Resorcinol 25” better than one called “Resorcinol 29”, and liked “Zinc 24” better than “Zinc 31”.

Prime NumbersIn another experiment, they discovered a way to make a numbered brand name even more appealing to consumers: include the numbers that multiply to give the brand number in the advertisement. So, for example, they found that a car branded as the “S12” was liked better than one branded as the “S29” – but it was even more popular when the car’s license plate showed a large “6” and “2”.

Similarly, an ad for “4 small pizzas, up to 6 toppings” for $24 resulted in more sales than one advertising “4 small pizzas, unlimited toppings” for $24 – even though the second offer was a better deal!

So, whether you’re naming a brand, highlighting statistics or requesting donations, the numbers you use are important. Choose them carefully and remember your multiplication tables. Nine-four, good buddy!

3 comments on 'Why we don’t catch 39 winks'

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  1. Rob

    12 Sep 11 at 2:35 pm

    The flip side.


    Carol Reply:

    Heh. You inspiration, you!


  2. Harold Bond

    12 Sep 11 at 3:10 pm

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.


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