Marketing Sep 4, 2012

Are Num­bers Gendered?

What they reveal about the human mind

iMrSquid via iStock

Based on the research of

James Wilkie

Galen Bodenhausen

Numerol­o­gy is often brushed off as lit­tle more than super­sti­tion. Take the num­ber thir­teen, which is con­sid­ered unlucky in many cul­tures. Or the num­ber sev­en, which is often deemed aus­pi­cious. But log­i­cal peo­ple beg to dif­fer. So what about num­bers and their mean­ings would inter­est scientists?

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To psy­chol­o­gists Galen V. Boden­hausen and James E. B. Wilkie, the mean­ings peo­ple ascribe to num­bers can reveal much about our psy­cho­log­i­cal bias­es, the way we learned math, and even how our brains cope with abstract con­cepts. Boden­hausen, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, and Wilkie, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Notre Dame, dis­cov­ered that we sub­con­scious­ly assign gen­ders to num­bers. Even num­bers are fem­i­nine; odd num­bers are masculine.

It all start­ed when Wilkie was struck with the notion that num­bers could have a gen­der. He and Boden­hausen did a bit of search­ing on the Inter­net, which revealed a pile of anec­dotes sup­port­ing his idea. A lit­tle more dig­ging revealed that the phe­nom­e­non of peo­ple assign­ing gen­der to num­bers dates back to ancient Greece and Chi­na. It was a top­ic ripe for research.

West­ern cul­tures in the Pythagore­an school — they have the sort of dichoto­mous view of real­i­ty. Every­thing falls into one of two cat­e­gories,” Boden­hausen says. There were all these things that were con­sid­ered female in that philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem and all these things were con­sid­ered male. Odd num­bers were con­sid­ered male and even num­bers were con­sid­ered female.”

The East­ern tra­di­tion of yin and yang — those are also sort of fun­da­men­tal­ly male and female ideas,” he adds. They have the same sort of idea that odd num­bers belong in the male cat­e­go­ry, the yang cat­e­go­ry, and even num­bers fit­ting in the yin cat­e­go­ry. So we thought, let’s test this out and see if that’s the case.”

Exper­i­ments in Ambi­gu­i­ty

Wilkie and Boden­hausen recruit­ed par­tic­i­pants online for a series of exper­i­ments that probed the idea of gen­dered num­bers. In each exper­i­ment, none of the par­tic­i­pants knew the goal of the study was to eval­u­ate a pos­si­ble link between gen­der and num­ber par­i­ty. Instead, they were told they would be judg­ing the mas­culin­i­ty or fem­i­nin­i­ty of var­i­ous ambigu­ous items, like for­eign names or pic­tures of the faces of babies.

Par­tic­i­pants rat­ed names shown next to a 1” to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more mas­cu­line than those next to a 2”.

In the first exper­i­ment, Eng­lish-speak­ing par­tic­i­pants were asked to judge the mas­culin­i­ty or fem­i­nin­i­ty of either Bul­gar­i­an or Span­ish names with which par­tic­i­pants were unlike­ly to be famil­iar. Along­side each name, on a ran­dom basis, was either a 1” or a 2”, which they were told was mere­ly there to aid the researchers’ orga­ni­za­tion. In real­i­ty, Wilkie and Boden­hausen were study­ing how par­tic­i­pants sub­con­scious­ly react­ed to the num­bers them­selves. Par­tic­i­pants rat­ed names shown next to a 1” to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more mas­cu­line than those next to a 2”.

The sec­ond study was large­ly sim­i­lar to the first, but this time Wilkie and Boden­hausen test­ed the effect on three-dig­it num­bers. (To make this exper­i­ment dis­tinct from the first, these num­bers did not include ones or twos.) Again, names paired with odd num­bers were deemed more mas­cu­line. In the third exper­i­ment, the researchers used baby pho­tos instead of unfa­mil­iar names, pair­ing each pho­to with an arbi­trary num­ber. Babies paired with odd num­bers were rat­ed as appear­ing more mas­cu­line, anoth­er sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant result.

We think that there are prob­a­bly mul­ti­ple rea­sons why these asso­ci­a­tions exist. It isn’t just one sim­ple expla­na­tion,” Boden­hausen says. One pos­si­bil­i­ty, he says, could be our expe­ri­ences when learn­ing math. Divi­sion by even num­bers is easy com­pared to odd num­bers, lead­ing us to devel­op an affin­i­ty for even num­bers. Or the mas­culin­i­ty of odd num­bers could relate to our under­stand­ing of the num­ber one as a sin­gle, stand-alone enti­ty (both fig­u­ra­tive­ly and lit­er­al­ly — the shape is quite soli­tary). The num­ber two, on the oth­er hand, sug­gests togeth­er­ness and coop­er­a­tion — stereo­typ­i­cal­ly fem­i­nine qual­i­ties. Those ini­tial per­cep­tions of 1” and 2” could then col­or people’s impres­sions of oth­er num­bers shar­ing the same cat­e­go­ry (i.e., oth­er odd or even numbers).

Num­bers (and Gen­der) Every­where

Gen­der asso­ci­a­tions with even and odd num­bers could have all sorts of impli­ca­tions — from retail pric­ing to casi­nos to pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes — but Wilkie and Boden­hausen say the trend they picked up on could reveal far deep­er insights. There has been an idea in cog­ni­tive sci­ence that the way we can get to abstract con­cepts is only by start­ing out in some­thing very con­crete and boot­strap­ping from that con­crete begin­ning,” Boden­hausen says. Some­thing like a cow is a very con­crete thing, but the con­cept of one cow? That con­cept of one turns out to be much more abstract than you would think it is.”

Giv­en how much con­crete expe­ri­ence peo­ple have with the dif­fer­ences between male and female roles, gen­der seems to be a com­mon point of ref­er­ence for under­stand­ing many dif­fer­ent con­cepts — just look at how per­va­sive it is in ancient philo­soph­i­cal sys­tems. Asso­ci­at­ing numer­i­cal con­cepts with gen­der may be one way peo­ple are able to grasp these oth­er­wise abstract ideas.

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

Real Men Don’t Eat Very Berry Cheese­cake: Man­ly pref­er­ences take their toll

Bias­es that Bind: The role of stereo­types in deci­sion-mak­ing processes

Women and Math, the Gen­der Gap Bridged: Social equal­i­ty frees women to match men

Featured Faculty

Galen Bodenhausen

Kellogg Professor of Marketing; Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences

About the Writer

Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.

About the Research

Wilkie, J. E. B. and G. V. Bodenhausen. 2012. “Are Numbers Gendered?” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 141: 206-210.

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