Dr. Art Markman, The University of Texas at Austin – Why We Like Round Numbers

Jun 1, 2012

For the 500th Academic Minute, Dr. Art Markman of the University of Texas at Austin explains why we think round numbers such a big deal.

Art Markman is a professor in the Psychology Department and Director of The Similarity and Cognition Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.  His research explores analogical reasoning, categorization, decision making, motivation, and innovation. His latest publication is Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.

About Dr. Markman

Dr. Art Markman – Why We Like Round Numbers

This is the 500th segment of Academic Minute, and that is a cause for celebration.  But, why do we like round numbers like 500? Why not celebrate the 471st segment instead?  After all, 500 is a round number largely through the accident that humans have 10 fingers and toes rather than something mathematically elegant about the base 10 system.

There are two factors that combine to create this preference for round numbers.  The first is familiarity.  Starting in the 1960s, psychologist Robert Zajonc observed that people like things just because they have encountered them before.  That’s why an insipid pop song that drives you crazy at the start of the summer becomes the defining sound of the season after you hear it a hundred times.  

The centrality of round numbers based on familiarity leads to the second factor—landmarks.  We love to use round numbers and anniversaries as times to celebrate achievements and evaluate progress. At the start of any venture, whether it is a business or a relationship, there is lots of excitement.  After a while, though, the excitement dies down, and your actions become routine.  Those routines—or habits—are done mindlessly.

Landmarks have two benefits.  First, they provide an opportunity to celebrate a real accomplishment.  That celebration can inject energy and excitement to liven up the daily routine.  And second, landmarks create a time to analyze your progress.  Are you happy with your life, business, or relationship?  Are there things you would like to change?  Those round numbers serve as a chance to make mindful the things in life that have become mindless.  

So, hats off to Academic Minute.  Let the celebration begin.