The Comfort of Round Numbers

I was running to burn some calories and my smartwatch tells me you’ve covered 4837 steps and only 163 steps left till you reach the 5,000 step milestone.

Have you ever noticed, there are many informative articles and videos on the internet, starting with the title ‘10 ways to ___‘, or ‘How to invest in your 20s or 30s‘. But why the 30s and not 32s or 33s? We talk about being in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and our 50s. We don’t talk about being in our 33s.

In January 2021, when the BSE SENSEX (Stock Index of India) breached the 50,000 marks, you could hear or read this number almost everywhere. No one said that it has crossed 49,893 or 50,012. I mean we could measure its performance on a different scale and it would have meant the same thing. As a human, it’s harder to use just any number to make sense of things. We prefer to use round numbers.

Round Numbers and Human Behavior

Numbers are a human invention and they’re not something we get automatically from nature. But some numbers have mattered more than others. Round numbers influence our lives in many other ways since you start understanding them. While studying, the benchmark for a full score in any course is in the multiple of 100. You talk about any exams you take such as SATs, JEE, GMAT, etc., full score is mostly a round number like 300, 400, 800, 1600.

We like things that are simple, that are easy to process, that are easy to make sense of, that are easy to understand. People react to not only what a number counts but also how they feel about its roundness. When we hear a round number, we don’t pause but a non-round number takes longer to process.

Number System

Our number system is dominated by the base-10 system. We use it all the time to estimate our expenses, negotiate our salary, or talk about our age. Counting in ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, comes so natural to us now that we tend to forget that there are alternatives to the 10-based system.

Nearly 5000 years ago, Sumerians developed a sexigesimal system (base-60) that they later passed on to the Babylonians. This system is still reflected in our modern society—60 minutes, 60 seconds, and 360 degrees.

There exists another number system (base-12) maybe even older than the Sumerians’. Some cultures in the Middle East and Asia still actually count to 12 on each hand. To try this, use your thumb as a pointer, count each of the three little bones on your pinkie, ring, middle, and index finger. There you have the number 12. Just like base 60, you still see evidence of base 12 today: a dozen, 12 inches, 12 hours. For mathematicians, 12 is a more attractive number than 10.

We love round numbers so much that we often regulate our behavior to achieve them. Maybe we think those round numbers offer precisely measured information, but take another look. Those figures are often full of emotion and clues to complicated behavior.

Feel the Power

Next time try celebrating your 9th or 11th marriage anniversary as special as your 10th. Or, celebrate an employee’s 21st work anniversary in the company just like the 20th. I bet you will feel the power of round numbers.

Keep Rounding!

If you liked it. You may like Murphy’s Law: A Different Perspective as well.

Featured image by Spread the love

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7 thoughts on “The Comfort of Round Numbers

  1. Even the writer preferred to talk in terms of round numbers “About 5000 years….”
    But surely a thought is shared..and quite informative as well.
    Kudos once again Mr. Bansal..

    1. See, this is the power of round number I am talking about. Even with the full conscious mind, I couldn’t resist myself from using it. Thank a TON () for the appreciation.

    2. Nice observations Shailesh.
      Recently, when the Covid cases reaching 2 lakh mark, we became much more sensitozed, but not during 190 k.

  2. Good article on number system Shailesh. Yes it’s true that human behaviour is to opt easy things quickly.
    As we have set 100 as the benchmark for completion of any thing than the remaining numbers like 10,20 or 30 give as an idea about how close or far we are from completeness. I mean to say that dividing 100 in different segment is easy.
    I don’t know, but I guess it is happening since the great Aryabhatt discovered the Zero which made the things easy for everyone (Although the Sumerians were the first to thought about nothingness and the first evedince of zero was found in Mesopotamia).
    Lot can be said and discussed about it. We still need to connect many dots on this numbering system.
    Good topic, Keep it up!!

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