Consumers Find Non-Round, Unique Numbers 'Jarring,' Says Study

A new behavioral study suggests people prefer round numbers, even if non-round ones are better.
Brad Bergan

People find non-round numbers too unique and jarring, preferring round numbers even if they detract from the degree of positivity the news may bestow on their lives, according to a new study published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process.


Behavioral study says round numbers are more positive

If we're going by the numbers, we can think of a scenario where a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is rated with a 91.27% effectivity. If public health officials debut the new information with the specific number, people are more likely to think the vaccine is less effective than they will if officials tell them it's 90% effective, according to a blog post on Rensselaer's Polytechnic Institute.

This concept has real-life applications in the recent findings of Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The paper, entitled "Revisiting Attribute Framing: The Impact of Number Roundness on Framing," investigates a sector of behavioral economics research that deals with attribute framing: an area that evaluates how people make decisions on the basis of how information is presented.

The data says people find uniqueness jarring

Researchers in this field of study have focused on the attributes, adjectives, and other words used to describe measured phenomena fo decades. But in this paper, Jain looked at the data, and found that the numbers used in the frames affect behavior.

With six data sets consisting of more than 1,500 participants, Jain and his co-authors asked themselves what might happen to people's perception of information when specific, non-round numbers were used in place of round ones.

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They found that people consider non-round numbers unique and jarring. According to the work form Jain and his colleagues, people pause to think about a specific number because it's unique. Since it isn't the easiest thing to instantly comprehend, people relate the non-round number to a basic ideal, like 100% — but then rest in the comparison of the less-than-perfect number to the unrealistic ideal, and consider the specific number more negative.

"Numbers have a language and give non-numerical perceptions," said Jain. "When we use specific numbers, the evaluations decrease. There was no apparent reason for this kind of behavior, and this was incredibly surprising."

New study a boon for marketing, public health officials

Jain and his team investigated the question with behavioral economic research hypotheticals instead of a specific question — like those regarding communications about a potential coronavirus vaccine — but this new research had direct and crucial import for marketing and public health messaging.

"The extensive use of attribute farming in marketing, organizational behavior, and public policy communication and the robustness of the effects in experimental setting make it one of the most important and frequently studied phenomena in the field," said Jain. "Managers and public health officials should be careful when using non-round numbers, because the use of this approach in communication messages may decrease the subjective evaluations of the target on the associated attributes."

The paper will also help scientists better comprehend the fundamentals of attribute farming, according to Jain. "Our studies lend support and offer an elaborated process account for the attention-association-based reasoning for framing effects in general, which adds to the scarce literature on processes underlying framing effects," said Jain.

While the idea of human preference for the easy numbers seems to lend credibility to the idiomatic sentiment that "ignorance is bliss," this new study of behavioral economics has great import for marketing and public health officials, who will surely enjoy an enhanced capability to engage with consumers on a happier basis.

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