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The Psychology of Numbers

Posted on Trivia- the Spice of Life on 29/10/2022

Psychology of numbers Image Courtesy:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

These are immortal lines of Shakespeare from his play Romeo and Juliet. Can we say the same about numbers? Well, I believe not. The beauty of numbers is that even a decimal point or the cipher could completely alter the scenario. Increasing or decreasing a number by 1 could herald a world of difference. This anecdote that I came across while researching for this post would give an insight into how even seemingly negligible changes can have notable consequences.

Professor Edward Lorenz Image Courtesy:

Around 1960, Lorenz, a professor at MIT, fed numbers into an early computer program simulating weather patterns. Professor Lorenz changed a single value from .506127 to .506.To his surprise, that negligible alteration drastically transformed the whole pattern his program produced, affecting the accuracy of over two months worth of simulated weather patterns. The unexpected result led him to a powerful insight into the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “butterfly effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. 

I must tell you where all this is coming from.

The other day, I went to a Bata store to buy school shoes for my children. When I think of footwear, the go-to store is Bata. That is the kind of trust that customers have in the brand. As I was getting the billing done, both my daughters wondered why the price of the shoes was ₹ 999 per pair and not ₹1000. After all, what difference would one rupee make? Having learnt about rounding off in Mathematics, the question was logical as well as topical.

Bata Prices Image Courtesy :

This led me to the ponder about the psychological pricing strategy that has traditionally been followed by Bata. This has been the case since donkey’s years. In Alex Through the Looking- Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, Alex Bellos writes, “When we read a number, we are influenced by the leftmost digit than we are by the rightmost since that is the order we read, and process, them. The number 799 feels significantly less than 800 because we see the former as 7-something and the latter as 8-something.” Bata seems to be loyally wedded to this strategy of psychological pricing. But I believe that this pricing strategy has almost become a defining feature of the brand irrespective of whether it has had a positive psychological impact or not. One is so used to seeing 9 in the one’s place.

Rounding off Exam Scores Image Courtesy :

I must add here that if the number in question is the grand total scored in an examination, the tendency would be to round off to the higher end. So a 79 and 1/2 would be 80 which seems much more respectable though the difference is only half a mark.

Cricket Score Card Image Courtesy :

The same is the impact of the target set in a cricket match by the team batting first. If the team scores 201 instead of 199, it seems as though the target is more daunting. When it comes to the final overs of a cricket match, the statistics with respect to the required runs to win are juxtaposed with the number of balls and not overs.

Thus, while there may not be much in a name, there is quite a bit in a number!!

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Numbers

  1. Anita,
    This pricing has become universal. All restaurants price their buffet spread at something like ₹799. Same with supermarkets, Amazon etc. It must be working to become so ubiquitous.

    From the store’s perspective, there is another minor advantage. If you pay by cash you would not get ₹1 back, and no one bothers. In Post Offices, they are not even apologetic at their inability to return the change. The tellers look away to the next customer as if nothing has happened.

    Some stores gave you candies for small change. That kept the candy, toffee makers happy. An interesting offshoot of digitisation of payments is that many of these companies have gone bankrupt. You don’t have change? Don’t worry I would pay you by Paytm.

    An interesting play with numbers was by banana hawkers. If it was ₹50 a dozen, you buy 6 for 25 and give him a ₹50 note and ask him for a change of ₹25. Invariably the hawker gave me ₹20, and if I looked at him askance, he would say, Sir 7 de diya hai, ₹30 mein. Now the seventh costs only ₹4.33, so at every deal of this kind he overcharges 67 paise. Sometimes I played along giving him the satisfaction that he has outsmarted me. Sometimes I would be a killjoy and bring out a ₹5 coin to make the exact payment. Digital payment has deprived us of these little games.


    1. AKji, thanks for the insightful comment! I hear you completely. While the psychological pricing has become universal, Bata was perhaps the pioneer of sorts. In the good old days when we used to pay only in cash, as you rightly point out, we have had these experiences. When the store cashier gave candies, I would feel annoyed and would tell him that the next time I would pay him in candies instead of petty cash!!
      I feel there is still a small segment that religiously uses cash. My younger daughter is very fond of collecting small change in her piggy bank, which she counts religiously. When the count reaches 1000, she neatly segregates them denomination wise and makes a list and we both hand it over to our chemist (and buy medicines worth a 1000 of course!!) who is always in need of change.


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