Why Every Number Has a Gender
Quick. Take a guess.
Which phone number belongs to a male? And which belongs to a female?
I’ll share the answer in a second.
First, a quick anecdote…
In high school, I needed to change my phone number. I know, pretty painful.
Emily, my girlfriend at the time, HATED my new number. She thought it was too feminine.
I remember thinking: Too feminine? A phone number? This girl be crazy.
Of course, I didn’t say that. I just nodded — like any love-struck male teenager.
And I never thought about that moment again…until a few days ago.
This past weekend, I was browsing the Journal of Consumer Research — like any marketer with no social life.
And I found something interesting: people view certain numbers to be male or female.
Aha. Emily might not be crazy after all.
Let’s revisit my question:
Those are my original phone numbers (slightly adjusted for privacy).
Can you spot my original male number? And what about my newer female number? Choose now.
According to research, the second phone number sounds more feminine.
Was that your guess? Weird, right?
Don’t worry, I’ll explain why. We’ll cover two topics:
- WHY do numbers have a gender
- HOW can you apply this principle
Why Do Numbers Have a Gender?
So what’s the answer? How could a number — an arbitrary quantity — acquire semantic meaning, such as gender?
Thanks to evolution, our ancestors needed to evaluate people on two dimensions: warmth and competence (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2006). That’s how we survived.
And, thank to the nature of evolution, we still still possess that innate mechanism. Even today, we categorize ALL stimuli into one of two buckets:
- Bucket 1: Warmth (emotional, relational, etc.)
- Bucket 2: Competence (rational, achievement, etc.)
More importantly, those buckets align with our stereotype of gender:
- Female = Warmth
- Male = Competence
So…how does that relate to numbers? Good question.
Today, humans categorize abstract concepts (e.g., numbers) into one of those buckets. Thus, numbers inherit the qualities from their respective bucket.
Specifically, we make this categorization:
- Warmth / Female: round and even (e.g., 210-8244)
- Competence / Male: precise and odd (e.g., 675-1095)
But why THAT categorization? How did we choose it? There IS a mechanism (albeit subconscious).
According to one study (Wilkie & Bodenhausen, 2015), the culprit is processing fluency:
Even numbers are easier to process. They feel more familiar. Thus, we associate them with warmth (i.e., female).
Odd numbers are more difficult to process. They require more cognitive resources. Thus, we associate them with competence (i.e., male).
There’s a second mechanism too. We also consider the prototypicality of 1 and 2:
“The number 1 implies a solitary entity (and in some cases, the most dominant option) and is consistent with the theme of autonomy…In contrast, the number 2 implies a pair of linked or related objects, consistent with relational themes…” (Wilkie & Bodenhausen, 2011, pp. 206-207)
In other words…
- 1 is male
- 2 is female
But what’s the big deal? Those are only two numbers, right?
Well…yes. But not really.
You see, we view 1 and 2 as PROTOTYPES for odd and even numbers. They’re like team captains. They dictate qualities for the entire team.
- Male → 1 → All Odd Numbers
- Female → 2 → All Even Numbers
To test those ideas, Wilkie and Bodenhausen (2011) asked people to guess the gender of a baby. When the baby was paired with an odd number, people were more likely to guess a male gender (and vice versa for even numbers and females).
How Can You Apply This Principle?
This principle is pretty odd (pun intended). But it has strong applications for pricing.
When choosing the numerals in your price, consider your target market.
- Do you sell products to a MALE demographic? Precise and odd prices (e.g., $79.53) will seem more appealing.
- Do you sell products to a FEMALE demographic? Rounded and even prices (e.g., $80) will seem more appealing.
In both cases, those prices should increase sales (see Yan, 2016 for empirical support).
Also, gender is merely a byproduct of warmth and competence. You should also consider the type of product — whether it’s rational or emotional.
- Are you selling a rational product, like a business laptop? Precise prices (e.g., $497.83) will seem more appealing.
- Are you selling an emotional product, like tickets to a play? Rounded prices (e.g., $80) will seem more appealing.
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