Ever since I can remember, I've assigned genders to abstract things, especially numbers. But, more than that, I've assigned facial features, personalities, and even small backstories to certain numbers. I've never really thought too hard about it--it is just something that happens automatically in my brain. But not necessarily for every number.
For example, to me, 9 is a tall, elegant woman with a rather mean personality. Think Jessica Lange lighting up a cigarette. That's 9, and she doesn't have time for anybody's crap.
8 is basically my grandma. A sweet, motherly figure who is bubbly and always has cookies baking in the oven. Her husband is 6, a somewhat crotchety older man who has a heart of gold under the surface.
7 is a rebellious boy in his late teens. Maybe he's 8's and 6's grandson.
It wasn't until I recently read a Reddit thread (asking about things people do that they are 99% sure others do but don't want to ask) that I realized that there are others who think like I do. It was suggested by some on Reddit that it could be a form of the neurological phenomenon synesthesia called ordinal linguistic personification. I'm skeptical that I'm actually a synesthete, but I guess I'm open to the idea.
After poking around on the Internet, I found research suggesting that assigning gender to numbers is a common phenomenon and that odd numbers are typically male, while even numbers are female.
Numerology is often brushed off as little more than a superstition. Take the number thirteen, which is considered unlucky in many cultures. Or the number seven, which is often deemed auspicious. But logical people beg to differ. So what about numbers and their meanings would interest scientists?I'm sure there's something to this, but it doesn't explain the Jessica Lange 9 or the grandfatherly 6 or the male teenager 7.
To psychologists Galen V. Bodenhausen and James E. B. Wilkie, the meanings people ascribe to numbers can reveal much about our psychological biases, the way we learned math, and even how our brains cope with abstract concepts. Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Wilkie, an assistant professor at Notre Dame, discovered that we subconsciously assign genders to numbers. Even numbers are feminine; odd numbers are masculine.
Gender associations with even and odd numbers could have all sorts of implications—from retail pricing to casinos to professional athletes—but Wilkie and Bodenhausen say the trend they picked up on could reveal far deeper insights. “There has been an idea in cognitive science that the way we can get to abstract concepts is only by starting out in something very concrete and bootstrapping from that concrete beginning,” Bodenhausen says. “Something like a cow is a very concrete thing, but the concept of one cow? That concept of one turns out to be much more abstract than you would think it is.”
Given how much concrete experience people have with the differences between male and female roles, gender seems to be a common point of reference for understanding many different concepts—just look at how pervasive it is in ancient philosophical systems. Associating numerical concepts with gender may be one way people are able to grasp these otherwise abstract ideas.
I don't know how common or uncommon the associations in my brain are. Not that it really matters to me--it has never disrupted my life, and it makes numbers a little more interesting for me. But I'm curious, do you assign any genders or personalities to numbers, or other abstract things?
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