Playing the numbers

By Alex Bellos

What’s your lucky number? Alex Bellos conducted an online survey and discovered a hot favourite: people find the number 7 clever, cheery and divine. Our reactions to numbers shine a fascinating light on how our brains work, especially in the oh-so-superstitious Far East. Here, Bellos looks at our fascination with numbers.

Is 7 your lucky number? Photo / Thinkstock
Is 7 your lucky number? Photo / Thinkstock

Think of the number 7. Do you like it? Do you love it? Do you remain unmoved? You may think these are frivolous questions, but when I launched an online survey asking people to submit their favourite numbers and explain the reasons why, almost 4000 people declared a devotion to 7.

"It cheers me up and gives me a feeling of comfort," said a female participant, aged 48, from Norway.

"It has great symbolic value as an expression of Muslim belief and the miracles of God," wrote a 25-year-old man in Lebanon.

Seven polled the highest in my global survey that attracted 44,000 participants, making it, in my opinion, the world's favourite number.

The survey was self-selecting and therefore did not conform to the rigorous standards of a laboratory experiment. (Although I would wager that any professional poll would find the same results.) Yet academic studies that have investigated our emotional responses to numbers have found that they follow clear patterns.

Marisca Milikowski of the University of Amsterdam set up an experiment in which participants were shown all the numbers between 1 and 100 and asked to rank each number on a scale between good and bad, and between excitable and calm. Her results showed clearly that even numbers are generally seen as good, and odd numbers bad.

Numbers ending with 1, 2 or 3 are generally more excitable than the others, and even numbers are the most calm.

Dan King of the National University of Singapore and Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida asked participants whether they liked, disliked or felt neutral about every number between 1 and 100, as the numbers appeared in random order on a screen. Data from this experiment shows that even numbers and ones ending in 5 are much better liked than the other odd numbers.

In other words, when asked to project non-mathematical meanings on to numbers, or to react emotionally to them, our responses are remarkably coherent. And these responses reflect numerical properties, most clearly size and divisibility by either 2 or 5.

It is interesting to realise that our favourite number is 7, an odd number, when even numbers are more liked and seen as calmer and better than odd numbers. In fact, in my survey, favourite numbers are much more likely to be odd than even, with a ratio of 60/40. Counter-intuitively, our favourite numbers are generally not the ones we like best or rate as good. Like is very different from love.

We can explain the popularity of 7 as a favourite number by looking at a classic psychology experiment. When asked to think of a random number between 1 and 10, most people will think of 7. Our response is determined by arithmetic. The numbers 1 and 10 don't feel random enough, neither does 2, nor the other even numbers, nor 5, which is right in the middle ... so we quickly eliminate all the numbers, leaving us with 7, since 7 is the only number that cannot be divided or multiplied within the first 10.

Seven "feels" more random. It feels different from the others, more special, because, arithmetically speaking, it is.

Terence Hines of Pace University in the United States conducted another experiment that helps explain why we view odd and even numbers differently. He displayed pairs of digits on a screen. These would be both odd, like 1 and 3; both even, like 6 and 8; or one of each, like 1 and 6. Participants were asked to press a button only when both digits were odd. On average it took respondents 20 per cent longer to press the button when both digits were odd. He calls it the "odd effect" - it takes our brains longer to process odd numbers. They are literally more thought-provoking.

When people explained their choices in my favourite number survey, their reasons were varied and surprisingly tender, such as 2 because the respondent has 2 piercings, 6 because the sixth track on the respondent's favourite albums is always the best, 17 for the number of minutes the respondent takes to cook rice, 24 because the respondent sleeps with her left leg kicked out like a 4 and her boyfriend sleeps like a 2 on his side, and 1,000,000,007 because it is the highest prime number he can remember.

"Having a favourite number means that you get a little buzz every time you happen to be sitting in seat 53 on a train, or notice that the time is 9.53," said one submission. "I can't think of a reason not to have a favourite number."

We learn at school that numbers are tools for counting but our relationship with numbers is clearly a deep and complex one, dependent on many cultural and psychological factors.

In the Far East, superstitions about numbers are more noticeable than they are in the West. For example, 4 is unlucky for speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean because the word for "4" sounds the same as the word for death. Brands avoid product lines with a 4 in them, hotels don't have fourth floors and aircraft don't have fourth rows. (This is more disruptive than Western fear of 13, primarily since, being smaller, 4 occurs more frequently than 13.)

Eight is a lucky number in East Asia, however, because it sounds like the word for prosperity. A study of newspaper adverts in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong showed that 8 was by far the most popular non-zero digit in a price (for example, JPY6800 in Japan). If you put an 8 in your price you make the product seem much more alluring.

These superstitions are not lightly held. Indeed, the association of 4 with death has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. US health records show that, for Chinese and Japanese Americans, that chance of suffering a fatal heart attack is 7 per cent higher on the fourth of the month than would be expected.

East Asians hold deep superstitions about numbers, yet outperform Western nations in the international league tables of mathematical performance, which suggests that strong mystical beliefs about numbers are not an impediment to learning arithmetic skills.

In fact, I would argue that having any sort of belief about numbers encourages a playfulness and an intimacy with them, which ultimately makes you less scared of mathematics and better at sums. It pays to have a favourite number.

Alex Bellos is the author of Alex Through the Looking Glass: How life reflects numbers and numbers reflect life. Out now, RRP$36.99, published by Bloomsbury.

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