How Numbers Sound Can Create Misperceptions of Value, Study Finds

Harvard Business Review is featuring three-year old research by UConn marketing professor Robin A. Coulter that found people unconsciously associate certain letter sounds, such as the "s" and "i" in "sixty-six," with smallness and the "t" and "oo" of "twenty-two" with largeness, and these associations interfere with the accuracy of their quantitative perceptions.  Next time you hear an advertisement on tv or radio featuring a sale price, the findings would be good to keep in mind.

The  2010 study by Keith S. Coulter and Robin A. Coulter, “Small Sounds, Big Deals: Phonetic Symbolism Effects in Pricing” is receiving renewed attention as part of Harvard Business Review’s “Daily Stat,” an email newsletter sent to subscribers.  It was featured as the lead item on May 15, 2013.

The study findings, publishedLaw-of-Large-Numbers in the Journal of Consumer Research, pointed out that when sale prices are said in English, an $11.00 to $7.88 (28.4%) discount is perceived as greater than a $10.00 to $7.01 (29.9%) discount; however, when these same prices are said in Chinese, the latter discount is correctly perceived as greater.  So, the sounds of the language matter.

"Number sounds impact price magnitude perceptions only when consumers mentally rehearse a sale price, as they might do when comparing items on a shopping trip," Science Daily reported when their research was initially released. The study’s bottom line: the mere sounds of numbers can non-consciously affect and distort numerical magnitude perceptions.

Dr. Robin Coulter is Department Head and Professor of Marketing at the UConn School of Business. She teaches in the undergraduate, Executive M.B.A. and Ph.D. programs in the areas of consumer behavior, integrated marketing communications, and marketing management. Dr. Coulter’s research interests include cross-cultural consumer behavior, branding, advertising effects and effectiveness, pricing, and services marketing.  She has published in a variety of marketing and social science journals, and participated last month in the Geno Auriemma UConn Leadership Conference.

Keith Coulter is Associate Professor of Marketing at Clark University.  He is a UConn graduate, and was a visiting Assistant Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University in the ‘90’s

The study authors found that “small sounds can create the impression of big deals” and that number-sound effects were more likely to occur when a frame of reference (a regular price) was provided, Science Daily reported, noting that the sounds of numbers at times created false impressions of value. For example, participants perceived a $10 item marked down to $7.66 to be a greater discount than a $10 item discounted to $7.22.