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How important are numbers in human decision making?.

How important are numbers in human decision making?

In the late-1980s and early-1990s, marketers widely recognized the power of the number 2000 to portray something positive and new. Companies from airlines (Air 2000) to private-hire firms (Car 2000) to hairdressers (Style 2000) cashed in on the cachet of a date that was close enough to convey excitement and innovation but not so distant as to be difficult for consumers to grasp.

The name fell out of fashion in the late-1990s as the turn of the century came to be seen as more of a headache than a new beginning. The millennium-bug scare frightened everyone who owned or operated a computer. Sky-high prices turned people away from the idea of celebrating the turn of the century at a restaurant meal with friends. London’s Millennium Dome seemed to encapsulate it all: a technology-delivered, expensive vastness that would fail to live up to expectations and be difficult to fill.

Months, and in some cases years, before Big Ben struck midnight on 31 December 1999, Air 2000 had been transformed into First Choice, Car 2000 had been renamed Delta Cars and Style 2000 had undergone its own makeover, becoming Professional Hair Design (PhD – get it?) in the process.

Critcher and Gilovich (Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Jul 2008) investigate the influence of numbers on human decision making through three experiments. In the first, people were asked to assess the expertise of an American footballer using two photographs, identical except that in one his shirt was numbered 54 and in the other 94. In the second, a fictitious mobile phone was identified first as P17 and then as P97. And in the third experiment people had to express their willingness to pay for a meal at one of three restaurants after reading a description and indicating which of the restaurants – Studio 17, Studio 97 and Mon Jardin – they thought they were assessing.

The respondents gave the player in shirt 94 a higher assessment, thought that the P97 would outperform the P17 and indicated that they would spend more at Studio 97 than at either of the other restaurants.

The power of number can also be illustrated in the area of quality management. Manufacturing a quality product or delivering a quality service depends on getting so many choices right. But managers sometimes fail to understand the difference between important work and that which is urgent. Debenham (Quality World, Jul 2008) presents a useful practical approach and mental tool – a table in which the priority of a task is calculated by multiplying the number managers assign to its importance by the number they assign to its urgency. The results can then be visualized using a chart divided into four segments – ‘do soon’, ‘do first’, ‘do sometime’ and ‘plan dedicated time’ – with the urgency and importance plotted as the two axes (x axis and y axis).

Here’s another set of figures. Following its merger with supermarket chain Somerfield, the Co-operative Group is spending £1.5 billion to refit 2,200 stores. A further £50 million will be spent in 2009 on the Co-op’s biggest-ever advertising campaign – to promote its co-operative ownership structure and ethical-business approach.

Benady (Marketing Week, 24 Jul 2008) predicts that the Somerfield acquisition will help to revive the Co-op’s fortunes now that the Co-operative Group has rediscovered the power of marketing and realized it has a powerful property in its ethical positioning. Others are less sanguine. While the Tesco juggernaut may show signs of stalling, the low-cost supermarkets like Aldi, Netto and Lidl seem to be the main beneficiaries.

Ethics can wait until the credit crunch is over, consumers seem to be saying.