The other day I was at this very famous sports store. There, I noticed that almost every product has a price ending with 9. Like, a dry-fit T-shirt was for 399, socks for 49, bottle for 99, and so on.
I have seen this trend almost everywhere but never actually tried to go deep into the details.
This time I decided to dig deep into the fact that why don’t we just write in simple round figures and make it complex instead!
Is it the numbers that play with our mind OR our mind plays with the numbers. Either way, the numbers ending with .99 or .95 is just another way of tricking our brain into believing that the number is actually significantly smaller than the nearest round figure.
In the year 2005, Manoj Thomas and Vicki Morwitz published an article presenting and testing the theory of the Left Digit Effect.
This keeps on getting interesting.
The Left digit effect reflects how the left-most digit, surprisingly and amazingly, affects our perception of price. For example, $3.99 seems to be very less than $4 while there’s psychologically no difference between $4 and $4.01.
But the next question arises: Why does $3.99, which has 3 digits, not seem like a huge number and on the other hand, why does $4, which has just 1 digital, seems to be bigger than the former one?
So cutting down the price of something is most effective when it changes the left-most digit.
The “2” in $2.99 exerts more influence on our perception of price than do that 9s. Let’s come to the reason.
First, they claimed that the mental process people go through when making sense of prices involves translating them into abstract magnitudes that are held in the mind while the decision is made. One axiom of the psychology of decision making, after all, is that humans tend to be bad at thinking in absolute terms like dollars, distance, or dimensions. Instead, we tend to think in terms of comparisons on an analog scale. Thus $2.00 is seen as less than $3.00, obviously!
But Thomas and Morwitz argue that as quickly as this “convert to analog” process happens, the fastest-moving part of our brain actually starts to encode the information before we actually finish the left-to-right process of reading a price. Thus $59.99 is seen as meaningfully less than $60.00 because that leftmost “5” is coded as meaningfully less than the 6. Sure, the relatively slow moving, rational part of your brain catches up an instant later and recognizes that a penny’s difference means nothing, but the snap judgment has already been made and perceptions of price are now subtly biased. As with most cognitive biases, we’re especially susceptible to the left digit effect when the rational part of our minds are busy or tired.
This effect can happen for any number or measurement. That includes things in the world of video games like average review scores, weapon stats, cooldown timers, gigabytes of disk space, leaderboard scores, and just about anything else that’s represented by a number.
DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND? No? Not even a little? Well, regardless, the left-digit effect can show up lots of places once you know to look for it. If you’re designing an axe for your RPG that does 3.02 damage per second, it’s going to be seen as disproportionately better than a sword with a 2.99 dps. Adding a skill point to reduce the cooldown timer on an ability from 5 seconds to 4.5 seconds is going to seem like a better use of the skill point than the previous time it was reduced from 5.5 to 5. And 3,000 experience points for a quest reward is going to be a lot better than 2,950 –more so than math alone would lead you to believe.
Cherry on top, we mention the left digit in bold letters. Something like this:
What happened here? Our brain just got tricked into believing that the price is actually very low as compared to its nearest round figure.
“Some retailers do reserve prices that end in 9 for their discounted items. Comparisons of prices at major department stores reveal that this is common, particularly for apparel,” wrote Eric Anderson, professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Duncan Simester, professor of management science at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, in their article.
For instance, the clothing stores J. Crew and Ralph Lauren typically price regular merchandise in whole dollar amounts and stick 99-cent endings on discounted items. These retailers purposely avoid ending their regular prices in .99 so that consumers won’t associate the items with cheap deals. By contrast, stores attempting to project an image of selling underpriced goods will make it a point to end all their items’ tags regularly priced and discounted alike in .99.
The power of “9” isn’t restricted to the cents column, as Anderson and Simester illustrated by asking a national clothing catalog to increase the price of one of its dresses. “You’d generally expect demand for an item to go down as the price goes up,” Anderson and Simester wrote. “Yet in our study involving the women’s clothing catalog, we were able to increase demand by a third by raising the price of a dress from $34 to $39. By comparison, changing the price from $34 to $44 yielded no difference in demand.”
If you’re a game designer trying to maximize player satisfaction over rewards but don’t want to hurt balance too much, the left-digit effect may be a very good tool to have in your box. These left-digit effects are likely to be most effective if employed when players’ mental resources are depleted or directed elsewhere. Examples might include during combat or a multiplayer match, in the midst of a complicated character creation process, or in an inventory screen where players compare item stats. Because biases sneak in when the more conscious parts of our minds are too distracted or exhausted to recognize and counter them.