21 January 2011


ROUND NUMBERS. In math and in the popular imagination, a round number is considered to be "an integer that typically ends with one or more zeroes (0)." Christopher Intagliata reports that a study in the journal Psychological Science found that "round numbers are intrinsically motivating to us, even if there's no obvious reward for reaching them." Examples -- remaining on a treadmill or elliptical trainer to reach a round number of miles (3.0), rather than stopping earlier when fatigue first set in (2.7). Or retaking an SAT test to score above 1300, even if the initial score of 1290 was satisfactory to most college administrators. Or squeezing a few last gasps of fuel into one's vehicle to reach 10.0 gallons, after the filler nozzle safety device clicked off the flow at 9.7 gallons.

The study, "Round Numbers as Goals," does not offer a psychological explanation for this quirk of ours. My conjecture (with no evidence to substantiate it) is that subconsciously we are reverting to the source of our use of a numeral system with 10 as its base -- we first learned to count using our fingers and thumbs, of which we have ten. Holding up seven or nine fingers may feel incomplete, unsatisfying. Holding up all ten? Aaah, resolution! (Imagine if we, like cartoon characters, had only eight manual digits, and used a base-8 numeral system.)

Intagliata concludes by noting that these seemingly arbitrary goals "illustrate internal motivation that could confound some ideas in economics." I've long thought that the manner in which items are assigned a price is transparently manipulative, and downright goofy. Why place a $15.99 price tag on something, and not a much simpler $16.00? The answer is (in my opinion) that consumers truly are gullible or mentally lazy, and pay attention to the numbers to the left of the decimal point ($15.), thinking "Oh gee, it's only $15." They fail to note that the numbers to the right of the decimal point (.99) elevate the real price to just shy of $16. The ploy works. How gruesomely predictable is it that items offered in TV ads are often $19.99, or as variants $19.98 or $19.97? It is a slap in the face of consumer intelligence. I would love to see a store or restaurant where everything was priced in whole numbers. Just once.

So why, in consumer pricing, do we subconsciously round down, rather than rounding up that extra penny to a truer cost? Perhaps because we want to believe that we are saving money. It's all pretty silly. (Thanks to psychologist and prolific writer Andrea Kuszewski for turning me on to the original rounding article, as well as the article cited below.)

BANNED WORDS. We have heard (unfortunately) of banned books. Carl Zimmer has banned the use of certain words from his science writing classes. His motivation does not derive from prudery or political correctness. Rather, he explains, "anyone who wants to learn how to write about science -- and to be read by people who aren't being paid to read -- should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain but elegant English -- not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches."

Bravo. You will find Zimmer's Index of Banned Words here, and his explanation about why words (along with sentences, paragraphs, etc.) matter here. "Death to Obfuscation!", indeed. Prepare to be entertained.

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