How People Think About Numbers

Here’s an interesting insight into how people think: most people (at least in the West) mentally represent smaller numbers to their left and larger numbers to their right.

And here’s something even more interesting: leaning to the left, even imperceptibly, can influence how you estimate numbers.

Details of the research are here.

It’s the latest straw in a mounting pile of evidence that subtle environmental factors can have a profound influence on how people think.

And, of course, the researchers often appear to forget that people are individuals, with individual differences. I know from my own work with clients that different people represent numbers differently, though with similarities across cultures.

So there’s an experiment here, a bit like the pronouns exercise I showed on YouTube last week.

When you think of the number 1, where do you think of it? (By the way, does it have a size or a shape?)

When you think of the number 6, where is that?

When you think of the number 100, where is that?

And is there a relationship between those locations?

Please post your answers in the “comments” below!

(By the way, if you’re thinking of posting a comment for the first time, don’t be concerned about the fact that comments need to be “approved”. It’s just to block spammers, not to stifle discussion.)

6 Comments

  • Anna Shum

    11/11/2011

    I have a hard time connecting w/numbers the way I do w/words that to me piece together in pictures, feelings, and moods etc. With words, I can create stories or acronyms– essentially stories– that have that stickiness factor. For example, if I parked my car in level p2A of the garage, I’ll remember that by making up, say, “Peggy 2 arms” (that’s my little sis, and this is actually a reminder I used last wk!). It’s silly, given I suspect most humans born w/their expected sets of all appendages have 2 arms, but things and people, and even the silliness factor– life, relevance– etch memory. I don’t really know what numbers “feel” like. They’re abstract figures to me, which makes me wonder how they feel and look like for people who have mastery w/advanced math etc. Whereas I have such difficulty even trying to juggle a few double-digit ones for simple addition without pen and paper handy. However, attempting your above survey of numbers, the single digits, I think, “feel” closer. e.g., taking a stab, I’d say 1 hovers in my head, 6 is in my chest, and 100, teetering on the high end, floats maybe above my head to the side, can’t decide whether left or right… out of reach? Although, 100 being a round, even number ending w/0’s does make it somewhat accessible… just thinking out loud.

    ~ Anna (twit: @shummyShummy)

  • Meg

    11/11/2011

    Thinking about this, I realize I don’t really have sizes, shapes or positions for them but more relationships among them. For instance, 1 and 2 are friends, but 1 doesn’t like 3. 5 and 8 are often together but don’t really get along. 6 and 7 are best friends. 4 is female, 5 is male. 9 is a loner. Zero is empty, bland. I recall thinking this way since I was a child. Letters don’t have anything like those characteristics, though.

  • Anna Shum

    11/11/2011

    Hey Meg, Are you comfortable working with numbers/are a “math person”? What an interesting childhood memory/relationship w/#’s…

  • Zannie Rose

    12/11/2011

    1 is small and close by- left and down a bit and faded..6 is larger, black and up to the right a bit. 100 is far away, grey and like down a tunnel. It makes me wonder about how easy or difficult that makes it to eg generate £100, contact 100 people on my list, interest 100 people in my services. I also wonder if 1/6/100 will be in different places/spaces tomorrow. I think I will play with 100 – I have just made it gold, bigger that 1 and 6 and brought it in front of me..6 is not very pleased withthis change ..1 is diffident…

  • Stewart Mason

    12/11/2011

    I must be a little odd, because my numbers are uniform in boldness and size, and are arranged in a line across like a vintage car speedometer! (vauxhall viva?) oh dear….

  • Judy

    14/11/2011

    Fascinating stuff, thanks everyone for commenting!

    I seem to have all kinds of different locations for my numbers: “1” is at eye level and slightly left of centre, “6” about the same distance to the right… but “100 is behind my right ear!

    What can it all mean? 🙂

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