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The Psychology of Numbers in Fitness Ads

Jan 1, 2017

Think about the numbers you see in everyday life. They are practically everywhere, and I’ll risk stating the obvious and say that the numbers we see can be small or large. If one turns on the radio on his or her way to the grocery store and happen to catch a stock or financial report, that person might hear of a business transaction that ended up costing billions of dollars. Then that person might need to purchase a dozen eggs at the grocery store for $3.79. Some of those numbers in the above scenario we have more context for than others. The billion dollar value on the business transaction is hard for most to comprehend unless the person is familiar that particular niche of the business market. A young child is capable of understanding the concept that a dozen is equivalent to the number 12. It takes a more mature person to understand if that $3.79 is a good price for eggs. In fact, it’s not; right now that would be a full $2 above the national average. But again for a child’s mind, that $3.79 price tag still may not seem like much because of a lack of context.

The above scenario shows that our perception of numbers changes depending on the level of exposure we have to the contributing factors that lie behind those numbers. The sales jobs are largely based on knowing how to manipulate these perceptions among the public, who as a whole generally don’t fully grasp those contributing factors, and those professionals have become quite good at it.

So what happens if we apply these number psychology principles to the fitness industry? The most obvious application here occurs when someone comes in and has a consult with me and says I want to lose X number of pounds by this date. What this kind of person might not realize the physiologically, it can be very hard for some to lose the weight they want to lose, as well as achieve other fitness goals. But for weight loss especially, it takes lots of hard work and dedication to see results. But outside messages, often from the mainstream media, often say that such drastic weight loss is possible, and will try to sell you just the product you need to get the job done.

These companies take advantage of a kind of number psychology that aims to modify our perception of what are sometimes drastic results; we’ll call this trick minimizing. Usually when such exercise or diet programs are marketed, they make heavy use of minimizing to mess with our perception of time.. A quick Google search of some diet and/or exercise programs advertisements will reveal a good number of ads that will say that someone lost say 20 pounds, but won’t provide a timeframe for that weight loss. This is due in part to various legal challenges that have come from people who said certain programs were not as effective as advertised. As a result, trainers, gyms, and other health companies have to be careful what information they present in their program ads to ensure they don’t get hit with a lawsuit for false or misleading advertising. If a timeframe is provided, it is often expressed in the largest units possible. Usually this means using months instead of weeks, to make the timeframe seem shorter. Think about what at its very first impression seems shorter: 20 weeks or five months? Science says to most, if one will have more positive feelings to an ad that express that timeframe in months rather than weeks solely because of the smaller number associated with using the months as the unit of time.

While it is encouraging that harmful misinformation is being dealt with from a legal standpoint, it has done little to clear up the picture of what is or isn’t effective and safe, and having both is important.

The second element of number psychology is something that is a little more well-defined and it is called the law of small numbers. The premise behind this principle is that most people will innately believe that rules that may apply to large samples of data also hold true for small samples of data, which is not always true; quite the opposite in fact.

Let’s go back again and look at those diet/fitness advertisements. They usually contain individual testimonies, or marketing claims about their customers’ success (often doing so with unfinished claims), they create an illusion of a majority effect of whatever they are selling with a miniscule sample size. To put it another way, some individuals would see something like this and basically say to themselves, “This product works for them, so it should work for me”. The same thing happens when we hear this kind of anecdotal evidence from friends or colleagues about their health successes; we hear a handful of stories and see the success and believe because a small number of personal testimonies that the same kind of success is translatable to ourselves in a similar timeframe.

These two factors tend to lead our minds, consciously or not, to form some false norms and ideals, which may even (again consciously or not) creep in to the formation of our own fitness goals and resolutions. When we talk about fitness as a process, it is a process that must be pursued with the utmost respect, and that respect often includes not unduly rushing our bodies through an unhealthy regimen, or trying to take short cuts. The goal of improving fitness is to improve it in a sustainable manner. Products and programs offering drastically condensed timeframes should be met with some skepticism because they have the potential to ultimately have an effect on the sustainability of the changes they promise. So even if the numbers look good, don’t get duped, by them. Sometimes they presented in a way that is designed to mess with your head.

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