The Influence of Numbers on Perception: Exploring the Cognitive Process

For many years, wide receivers in the NFL have claimed that they prefer wearing low numbers instead of the traditional range of 80 to 89. Now, scientific research conducted by UCLA researchers has provided evidence to support this notion. In a peer-reviewed study published in the journal PLOS One, the researchers discovered that perception can be influenced by the associations made between numbers and size in the brain’s cognitive process. This article delves into the study, its findings, and the implications for understanding implicit bias and decision-making.

The researchers at UCLA were initially surprised by the strong correlation they found between numbers and perception. They exposed subjects to images of different football jersey numbers and measured their perception of the person wearing it. The study revealed that individuals were more likely to perceive a slimmer player when presented with a smaller number. Furthermore, even when considering a small range of numbers, such as 17 to 19, the correlation remained robust. This unexpected connection prompted further investigation into the phenomenon.

The interest in this subject was initially sparked when conducting an interview for a 2019 ESPN story on the migration of NFL wide receivers to numbers between 10 and 19. Former New York Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson was credited with initiating this process in 1996. The NFL later relaxed its rules for eligible receiver numbers in 2004, leading to approximately 80% of receivers wearing numbers between 10 and 19 by 2019. Receivers interviewed by ESPN offered various explanations for their preference for lower numbers, with many stating that these numbers conveyed a certain image they sought to communicate.

To explore the psychological reasons behind the preference for lower numbers, ESPN reached out to cognitive neuroscientist Ladan Shams. Shams hypothesized that the human brain might associate smaller numbers with slimmer body types, thus influencing perceptions. However, at the time, there was no accepted research to back up this assertion. Intrigued by the possibility, Shams and her research group decided to test this hypothesis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shams and her team conducted two separate exercises, one virtual and the other in-person, to explore the influence of numbers on perception. The subjects in the study were asked to rate players with different numbers on a scale ranging from “very slender” to “very husky.” The results demonstrated that observers perceived athletes with low jersey numbers as more slender compared to those with high numbers. This finding indicated that the brain’s associations with numbers, built over time, can influence perception in various domains.

The implications of this research extend beyond the realm of football. According to Shams, understanding how the brain establishes implicit bias in decision-making is crucial. The brain’s ability to identify patterns and regularities in numbers can create biases and expectations, often without conscious awareness. This knowledge has the potential to shed light on decision-making across different domains and the influence of implicit bias. By harnessing the brain’s learning mechanisms, it may be possible to mitigate and undo these biases.

The study conducted by UCLA researchers supports the claims made by NFL wide receivers that they look better when wearing low numbers. The findings demonstrate that the brain’s cognitive processes associate smaller numbers with slimmer body types, influencing perception. This knowledge provides insight into the formation of implicit bias and its impact on decision-making. By understanding these cognitive mechanisms, it becomes possible to address and counteract implicit biases. Moving forward, further research in this field could uncover additional connections between numbers and perception, leading to a better understanding of how our brains shape our perceptions.


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