Co-authored by Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D.

Numbers make life easier. When we count, we understand exactly how big, expensive, heavy, or old something is. Numbers make us feel more certain of what is in front of us. But can numbers have a down side? New research suggests that when we buy or receive items that are easily counted with numbers, we might well be less satisfied. The lead researcher on this project was Jingjing Ma, a Ph.D. student at the Kellogg School of Management, collaborating with me on research published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research.

What happens when people receive compensation in the form of unique gift items, like a toaster or winter coat, as opposed to cash? If two people receive the same value in terms of dollar amount, it shouldn’t matter whether those dollars come in the form of gifts versus cash. Our research shows that it does matter. In one of our studies, we rewarded experiment participants with either cake slices or cash. Some people got more than others. People who got more cash were understandably happy, and just as understandably, those getting less cash were upset. But whether people got more or less cake didn’t affect their satisfaction nearly as much. Because the cake slices were less easily counted, people were just as happy with less as with more.

The reason why countability matters is that it drives comparisons. It is easier to compare your pay to a coworker: numbers make it especially clear who makes more and by how much. In fact, our research shows that when rewards are easily counted, people are more likely to compare themselves with others. But when rewards are less easily counted, people focus mostly on the unique aspects of their own experience. When people get a slice of cake, they are more likely to zero in on the deliciousness of the cake and to ignore what other people got.

Comparisons underlie one of the most fundamental motivations: the desire for fair outcomes. People want to know what others have because they want to see if they got a commensurate amount. And it’s not just humans. In a 2003 study by Brosnan and de Waal that appeared in the journal Nature, capuchin monkeys who saw a peer get a better reward (a grape) for the same work that got them a worse reward (a cucumber) registered their displeasure by refusing to work any further for the lowly cuke. Fairness matters to people. And to monkeys.

Yet humans have a far greater capacity for judging fairness because they can count. The countability effect is perhaps most easily seen with children. As soon as kids can count, they can compare. And do they! Our research suggests how to cut down on the squabbles. Try giving kids rewards that don’t come in many individual units (think miniature candy bars, the kind that are popular around Halloween) but instead are portioned from a larger whole (such as a dish of ice cream). Making it harder to compare means that any discrepancies — real or imagined — are less salient, making it less likely to rise to the level of complaining.

The countability effect sheds new light on why some sales promotions are more effective than others. For example, one study showed that when people miss out on a deal, they are more upset when that deal was countable (e.g., buy one and get another one free) rather than not so countable (e.g., a larger bottle at the regular price). Research like this suggests that easily counted reward programs (such as airline frequent flyer miles) are more vulnerable to unintended customer dissatisfaction than less easily counted reward programs (as those offering free goods or vacation packages).

It has been said that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. But you might be able to enjoy an unfairly small cake if you do not count it too.

Co-author Kathleen D. Vohs, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota, and McKnight Presidential Fellow. 

Recent Posts in In Hindsight

Does Utopia Have Police?

Part 1 of a series -- Finding Utopia: Questing for the Perfect Society

What Moves Us

A short comment on fundamental human motives

Numbers Can Influence Satisfaction with Purchases

Sometimes numbers have a down side

We Never Saw It Coming

The psychology of missed predictions