Wednesday 10 September 2014

250,000: The allure of round numbers.




For some weeks I have been looking forward to announcing that I had achieved 250,000 readers. Why did I not feel 97.61% of the pride at the point of having 244,013 readers a week ago on the morning of 3 September? This blog is supposed to be a gathering of rational beings: readers who are able to make considered judgments and assess relative positions with numerate nuance and restrained precision. Is Daniel Kahneman right that rationality is an illusion? (No, and I don’t think he said that either.)

Given that this pleasing roundness is achieved some 22 months since the blog began, it would be cleverer to fit an exponential curve to the rise in readership and express the achievement as a mathematical function. Cleverer, but somewhat harder: the page views have had peaks and falls, the former coinciding with much read conference proceedings, the falls with posts on technical matters which interested me, less so my readers.

The allure of rotundity may have a prosaic explanation: when a number achieves a completion point the details of the smaller trailing digits can be set to zero, and the burden on memory is the less. It becomes not a jumble of numbers but a more memorable symbol of something attained, as when stocks go above “the psychologically important 6000 figure”. That same rounding simplifies our own recall of personal events. A UCL team studying sexual behaviour found that most respondents remembered their sexual conquests with precision, which was not a great difficulty for the majority, since the mean number of their lovers ranged from 1 to about 18 with a median of 10. The most sexually active 5% reported their amours in the hundreds, and for those frenetic fornicators the demands of passion on memory meant that they rounded their numbers up to the nearest 10. Incidentally, how can anyone not be interested in individual differences?

Rounding assists understanding, and brings numerical matters into the quasi-spatial domain, with key findings accessible at a glance. I know there are people who take the car out so that the whole family can witness the odometer work its way past the 100,000 mile mark, but I assure you I am not one of them.

Still, 250,000 is a milometer event on the blog journey, or I would not have mentioned it. If every one of you could please invite a colleague to have a look at the blog, and advise two students to comment on one of the posts…….then working together we could boost readership to 500,000 very quickly, an effect which would probably achieve significance at, yes the very round and psychological important barrier of p<.05

Keep reading.


  1. Congratulations. You've got one of the more intelligent blogs around, in more ways than one.

  2. “a gathering of rational beings: readers who are able to make considered judgments and assess relative positions with numerate nuance and restrained precision.” < 500,000

  3. Mr. Thompson,

    Do you agree with Steven Pinker here:

    Could you do a separate blogpost on this topic?


  4. By the way, David Brooks response to Pinker is the most emailed article at The New York Times right now:

  5. Great congratulations, of course!

  6. Standing on the shoulders of other bloggers and supporters. Keep going Jayman!

  7. Dear Marshall, Thanks, that has been suggested. All I need it a team to help me pick the posts to be included.