Magic by Numbers

17gilbertimg-articleInline Daniel Gilbert in the NYT:

I RECENTLY wound up in the emergency room. Don’t worry, it was probably nothing. But to treat my case of probably nothing, the doctor gave me a prescription for a week’s worth of antibiotics, along with the usual stern warning about the importance of completing the full course.

I understood why I needed to complete the full course, of course. What I didn’t understand was why a full course took precisely seven days. Why not six, eight or nine and a half? Did the number seven correspond to some biological fact about the human digestive tract or the life cycle of bacteria?

My doctor seemed smart. She probably went to one of the nation’s finest medical schools, and regardless of where she trained, she certainly knew more about medicine than I did. And yet, as I walked out of the emergency room that night with my prescription in hand, I couldn’t help but suspect that I’d just been treated with magic.

Certain numbers have magical properties. E, pi and the Fibonacci series come quickly to mind — if you are a mathematician, that is. For the rest of us, the magic numbers are the familiar ones that have something to do with the way we keep track of time (7, say, and 24) or something to do with the way we count (namely, on 10 fingers). The “time numbers” and the “10 numbers” hold remarkable sway over our lives. We think in these numbers (if you ask people to produce a random number between one and a hundred, their guesses will cluster around the handful that end in zero or five) and we talk in these numbers (we say we will be there in five or 10 minutes, not six or 11).

But these magic numbers don’t just dominate our thoughts and dictate our words; they also drive our most important decisions.