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Number Jumble on the Mobile

People who feel they just do not get enough calls should perhaps take a closer look at their phone number. If the string of digits, written as an SMS, would produce a word with an unpleasant connotation, potential callers may feel ill at ease dialing it - even if they are completely unaware of its literal meaning.

According to the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (BITKOM), 34.4 billion SMS have been sent in Germany in 2009. This means that each German has typed an average of 420 short text messages into their mobile. The potential consequences of sending SMS messages on a regular basis has been examined by Dr. Sascha Topolinski, psychologist in Würzburg - but from a surprising angle. The results of his work have now been published by Psychological Science.

Psychological Background

"We have found out in previous psychological tests that people performing a specific action are aware of the consequences even before they perform that action - although they may not realize it", says Topolinski. So someone who intends to press a light switch has already an unconscious idea of the light going on.

By itself, this does not yet sound very exciting. But: "What is interesting about it is the fact that we unconsciously anticipate the consequences of actions even if they cannot occur at all, for instance because the light switch doesn't work and therefore the light cannot go on", continues Topolinski. And what has that got to do with mobiles, SMS messages and phone number? More than one would expect, as Dr. Topolinski has found out in his experiments.

First Test: Is It Pleasant to Dial This Number?

"Please dial number 54323." This was Dr. Topolinski's instruction to his test subjects. A second group was instructed to type the digit string 534243 into a mobile. Both groups had been given mobiles with buttons showing only digits, and not - like commercial devices - also the letters needed for typing an SMS. Afterwards, the test subjects were asked whether it had been pleasant for them to dial the respective numbers. What they did not know was: In an SMS, typing the buttons 54323 produces "Liebe" [love], whereas typing the buttons 534243 results in the word "Leiche" [corpse].

"Actually, the test subjects preferred phone numbers that correspond to pleasant words over those associated with unpleasant words", says Topolinski - and that although they were not at all aware that the buttons for dialing those phone numbers produced such words.

The Brain Knows It All

Psychologists take this result as a proof that people actually anticipate the effects of their actions on an unconscious level. "The brain has learnt that pressing a button on a mobile can produce both a number and a letter", says Topolinski. As a result, the brain anticipates not only the digits when dialing a number but also the associated letters. Dialing the digit 2, for instance, would mentally activate the letters A, B and C. And what's more: Typing a phone number into a mobile apparently activates in the brain - on an unconscious level - whole words, provided that the buttons for dialing the phone number are pressed in the same sequence as for a specific word when writing an SMS. Depending on whether that word has a pleasant (love) or an unpleasant connotation (corpse), the person calling will find them more or less pleasant to type.

Second Test: Calling a Dating Agency

In a second experiment, Topolinski made the test subjects call certain service providers - such as a dating agency, a real estate office or a financial consultant. What the participants did not know was: The phone numbers of these service providers had a sequence of digits corresponding to a word which either fitted the business or not. For instance, the dating agency had either the phone number 54323 ("Liebe" - love) or 72528 ("Salat" - salad). After the call, during which only a taped message was played, the test subjects were asked to comment how attractive they had found that business.

Result: "Test subjects always found businesses more attractive if their phone number produced in SMS mode a word that fitted the business", says Topolinski.

This was even true for negative words: Undertakers whose phone number was 534243 - in SMS mode this sequence produces "Leiche" [corpse] achieved higher attractivity ratings than undertakers whose number produced some other, irrelevant word.

It Is Relevant for Business, Too

198 test subjects have participated in Sascha Topolinski's experiments. He thinks that in addition to their scientific relevance, the results could also be of interest for businesses. They suggest, after all, that business people should pay close attention to the phone number under which they can be contacted. A jeweller with the number 278662436 should not be too surprised if no one ever calls.

"I 5683 You : Dialing Phone Numbers on Cell Phones Activates Key-Concordant Concepts", Sascha Topolinski, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797610397668.

Contact: Dr. Sascha Topolinski, T: (0931) 31-82285, E-Mail: sascha.topolinski@psychologie.uni-wuerzburg.de

idw :: 08.02.2011