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Choiceology: Season 3 Episode 2

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Round-number goals are arbitrary but effective.

Have you ever noticed that there’s something satisfying about seeing a car’s odometer roll over from 99,999 to 100,000 miles? Or maybe more likely, looking at a clock right when it hits 12:00 on the nose? What’s so special about these moments?

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at quirk of human behavior that can lead, in some cases, to superhuman achievement.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Katy Milkman: Picture this typical scene at your neighborhood gym. Two friends are coming to the end of their workout.

Speaker 2: That’s 30 minutes for me. Hey listen, I’m beat. I’m going to go hit the shower.

Speaker 3: Sounds good. I’ll catch up. I just want to finish this set. Eight. Nine. Ten.

Katy Milkman: Nothing out of the ordinary there. But did you notice that that guy on the weights didn’t stop at seven, or nine or eleven? It probably would have seemed pretty strange if he had. That guy on the treadmill did 30 minutes. Not 28 or 33. It’s rare to hear someone say they did 13 laps in the pool, and you’ve probably never heard a coach or a drill sergeant yell, “Drop and give me 49!”

Today we’re going to explore the way we set goals and how to leverage insights from behavioral science to help us meet those goals.

I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about subtle forces that push you in one direction or another when you’re trying to make decisions. We bring you high-stakes stories that illustrate these forces, and then we dive into the science behind our occasionally irrational behavior. Finally, we try to give you some tools to fight back against behavioral traps. All to help you avoid costly mistakes.

Jason Beck: Hi, my name is Jason Beck, and I work as the curator and the facility director at the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver.

Katy Milkman: We’ve invited Jason Beck to talk about one of the most famous performance goals in the world of track and field, the four-minute mile.

Jason Beck: What surprised me was there were references back in like the 1770s of runners that were running close to a four-minute mile.

Katy Milkman: For hundreds of years, running a mile in four minutes or less appeared to be beyond the reach of human athletic ability. But as training improved, runners began to close in on the target.

Jason Beck: The runner that really changed things was Walter George. He was a professional runner from Britain in the 1880s, and he ran for four minutes, 12 seconds. For the first time, people were really going, “Wow. This is a possibility. Someone could improve and get to that four minute mark.” From there you see a steady progression.

It really picks up around 1915. There’s a series of runners from 1915 through to the 1930s that chipped away at that mark.

Katy Milkman: By the 1940s, chasing the four-minute mile became something of a global phenomenon. Runners all over the world became obsessed with breaking this barrier. But they all came up short. Swedish runner Gunder Hagg came the closest when he ran a mile in four minutes and 1.4 seconds. That was in 1945.

Jason Beck: The public conversation around the four-minute mile was that many thought it was impossible. There literally was a barrier that a human being could not run faster than what the current record was.

Katy Milkman: The four-minute mile seemed to push against the limits of human physical capability. But that didn’t stop runners from trying. Two runners who would figure prominently in the quest for the four-minute mile were John Landy and Roger Bannister.

John Landy was a young Australian athlete who had barely qualified for his country’s Olympic team in 1952.

Jason Beck: Essentially, I think he was the last person selected to Australia’s track team. He was a young runner. They kind of brought him along for experience. Not much was expected of him, and he gets completely outclassed. He doesn’t make it out of his heat. He takes a lot of what he’s heard and learned, and he goes back to Australia, and it’s like a motivating factor for him, how poorly he did. He doesn’t want to end there. He wants to get to another level.

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister was a practicing junior doctor in England at the time. He was aiming for a gold medal in the slightly shorter 1500 meter race in the 1952 Olympics and then planned to retire from the sport to focus on his medical career. But the race didn’t go Bannister’s way.

Roger Bannister: Well, I had failed in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. I was a favorite to win the gold medal, and I came fourth. I was very disappointed with myself. The team were disappointed in me, and also the British public.

Katy Milkman: This is Roger Bannister, interviewed as part of a 2013 documentary by the Commonwealth Games Federation.

Roger Bannister: By then, it was getting difficult to combine sport and my medical studies. I had the alternative of retiring feeling dissatisfied, or going on for two more years when there were the Commonwealth Games and also the chance perhaps to break the four-minute mile. Those were the reasons why 1954 became important to me, and it was my last opportunity before having to retire.

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister set his sights on the four-minute mile. He was looking to end his running career on a high note. John Landy, on the other hand.

Jason Beck: He certainly wasn’t chasing the four-minute mile like Roger was. John was just trying to improve. He was just trying to get better.

Katy Milkman: And he did get better. Much better. Landy had run a surprisingly good mile race where he clocked in at just four minutes and two seconds.

Jason Beck: That first race, where he runs 4:02 out of the blue, that shocked him. I remember an interview, he was saying, “I was as surprised as anybody, that I could run that fast.” I think at that point, he starts thinking, “OK. That is a goal that I’m going to chase now.”

Katy Milkman: This four-minute barrier was so tantalizing that the medical community got involved in efforts to shatter it. Researchers would bring elite runners into the lab to try to determine how to improve performance.

Jason Beck: Bannister was actually doing a lot of the testing himself, ’cause he was a medical student, and part of his area of study was physiology. There’s all sorts of these anecdotes of him literally testing himself on a treadmill in his own lab, taking blood samples as he’s running.

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister was getting so close to his goal. He’d run several times just over four minutes. On May 6th, 1954, at a small track meet in Oxford, he decided to try again.

Jason Beck: Apparently he was working a shift at the hospital. He actually took time out to go into one of the laboratories where he could actually sharpen his track spikes.

Katy Milkman: Bannister was working the same day as a world record attempt.

Jason Beck: He works his hospital shift, catches a train from London out to Oxford. It’s about a 45-minute or an hour train ride. It’s a really stormy, blustery, kind of not so great day. It’s raining. It’s windy. The worst possible conditions for a record attempt, and this is at a time when they’re running on cinder tracks. It’s going to be muddy. There’s probably going to be standing water. It’s not like the rubberized tracks that we see today.

Katy Milkman: Things were not looking good. The wind was so strong. Bannister figured he’d have to run even harder than usual to get close to that elusive four-minute time.

Jason Beck: They were in the change room, and Roger kept looking out the window, across the street where there was this church, and there was a flag on the church steeple. Every time he looked out, the wind was just flapping this flag. Then at one point, the wind drops and the flag kind of goes limp, and he kind of makes the decision, just minutes before the race is scheduled to be run. “OK. It’s on. We’re going for this.”

So they get out to the track. It’s part of a small track meet, a university and school meet. Not many people knew that they were going for this record attempt, but enough knew that the BBC was there filming it.

Katy Milkman: The record attempt would not be run as a competitive race. Bannister would have pace runners do single laps to help him keep the right speed. This was more like a lab experiment, where the conditions were a bit more controlled. Since the pace runners were in front of Bannister, they also helped reduce wind resistance.

Jason Beck: All the while, Roger’s running in the draft behind these two guys. Takes over in the last half lap, and you can see the video on YouTube today. It’s just amazing. His stride just opens up, and his hair is flapping, his mouth is wide open. He’s just gasping for air. His head is kind of flung back. He’s just giving everything.

He writes in his book how it was almost like an out-of-body experience. The pain he was experiencing. He could see himself approaching the finish line, and then almost like, there was almost like a chasm, and he kind of throws himself over it and across the line, and then everything goes black.

I don’t know if he lost consciousness momentarily, but he certainly looks like he does on film.

Katy Milkman: The small crowd was gripped with anticipation. Everyone wanted to know, “Had he run the mile in under four minutes?” Then the announcer says.

Jason Beck: “A new English native, a new British, a new European and a new world record,” and everyone’s kind of hanging on air, “with a time of three …,” and then the crowd just erupts and drowns out the rest of the time. Didn’t matter what the rest of the time was. It was under four minutes. There’s just pandemonium. As it was, he ends up running three minutes, 59.4 seconds, the first four-minute mile in history. It was a great moment.

The reception to Roger Bannister running the four-minute mile was the equivalent of like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascending Mt. Everest. It was world news, front page news, on every continent. Roger Bannister was instantly one of the most widely known names, not just in world sport, but in the world. It was possible. A human could run a mile in under four minutes, and I think it opened the gates for a lot of runners, and the best example of that is John Landy. You know, 46 days later, he too runs a sub-four-minute mile and runs even faster, 3:58.

Katy Milkman: Incredible. Decades passed where runners were barely managing to shave fractions of seconds off their four-minute-plus miles, and then Roger Bannister comes along and smashes through the barrier. And then it only takes a month and a half more for John Landy to break that record. But were these two records flukes? Bannister’s was achieved in a more controlled attempt, with pace runners helping.

John Landy’s record, at this point, was considered a more legitimate one, as he’d achieved it during a normal race. The debate was fierce, but it would be settled, once and for all, in Vancouver, Canada.

Jason Beck: They both realized, “Hey, we’re going to the Empire Games in Vancouver.” This is setting up for this incredible match-up between the two greatest milers in history, in their prime.

Katy Milkman: It’s Saturday, August 7th, 1954. There are at least 35,000 people in Empire Stadium. It’s the largest paid sports crowd in Canadian history to that point. NBC is broadcasting the race live, as is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s the first event ever broadcast live simultaneously in the U.S. and Canada. More than 100 million people tuned in on their radios. Millions more watched on television.

Jason Beck: The air was electric. If you talked to people that were in the stadium that day, they compared it to the anticipation before a rock concert or a heavyweight championship fight. There were people that were shelling out $100 to scalpers to get in. In 1954, that’s like a week’s wages for a lot of people, so this was a big deal.

They’re lined up at the line for the mile, eight runners, the air is just buzzing with anticipation. The crowd goes silent, the gun goes off, and they’re off. It was just a sprint from the get-go. John Landy is definitely the favorite in the mile race in Vancouver, without a doubt.

Announcer: Landy still in the lead. Roger Bannister second, and pulling up, decreasing the lead. Just a second roll, we’ll get us a time on the second lap. 1:58, he’s ahead of his world’s record time this far.

Roger Bannister: He was someone with greater stamina, but on the other hand, I had a better finish. So I had to ensure that he took the lead and tried to exhaust me.

Katy Milkman: Bannister knew he had to stick close behind Landy and try to conserve energy for that last push to the finish line.

Announcer: Landy still in the lead, Bannister second. We may be seeing history in the making here, this afternoon, in the miracle mile at Vancouver, British Columbia.

John Landy: I got a good gap between myself and Roger Bannister. Coming to the third lap, I continued on, but he started to catch up.

Katy Milkman: That’s John Landy, from the same 2013 Commonwealth Games Federation documentary.

Announcer: Be prepared for Bannister’s famous burst of speed at the end of the fourth lap. We’re now more than halfway through the third lap.

John Landy: Coming down the back straight, the sun was in such a position that I could see my shadow and his shadow. I started to inch ahead, a little bit, which gave me some optimism, and some people on the inside of the track yelled out, “You’re going well.”

Announcer: You see now, the only two men in the world who have ever run the mile in less than four minutes.

Roger Bannister: I managed to get to his shoulder near the end of the fourth lap.

John Landy: Coming around the final bend, I went through the 1500 meters just slightly behind my world record, so I was really going pretty fast. But I realized that, within another 20 meters or so, that I couldn’t hold the pace.

Roger Bannister: Then I managed to overtake him. At the time, he happened to look over his left shoulder.

Announcer: With a burst of speed from Bannister now.

Roger Bannister: He couldn’t see that I was overtaking him. Then when he looked back to the front, I was already ahead and had sufficient advantage.

Katy Milkman: In the footage of the race, the cameras are literally shaking from the noise of the crowd, and the stadium just going wild. You could also see in the footage, at the exact instant when John Landy looks back over his left shoulder, Roger Bannister speeds by on the right.

Announcer: Roger Bannister in the lead, Landy second. Bannister the winner. There’s wild …

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister had come from behind and won the race, but what was his time?

Announcer: It might be. They’re hugging each other down there, while they’re checking the time. It might be a record, or it’s within a split second of it.

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister finished with a time of three minutes, 58 and eight-tenths seconds, but he wasn’t the only one under four minutes. John Landy finished second with a time of three minutes, 59 and six-tenths seconds. Bannister didn’t quite break Landy’s world record, but it marks the first time the four-minute mile had been broken by two men in the same race.

Announcer: The winner, number 329, Dr. Roger Gilbert Bannister of England.

Katy Milkman: The race came to be known as the Miracle Mile. It was incredibly dramatic. But dramatic races happen all the time. Records are broken regularly. What was special about this one? Roger Bannister, again.

Roger Bannister: Well, it caught the public imagination. The idea of four laps in a minute each, breaking that barrier, was, I thought, rather psychological than actual.

Katy Milkman: Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile, died at the age of 88 in 2018. John Landy, the second man to do it, lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Jason Beck is the author of The Miracle Mile: Stories of the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and the curator and facility director at the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver, Canada. Fun fact, the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame has, in its collection, the Omega stopwatch that was used to record Roger Bannister’s first-place time in the Miracle Mile. The amazing thing about it—the stopwatch was never started again. It still reads 3:58.8 seconds. I’ve got a link to the Miracle Mile documentary, and a photo of the stopwatch, in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast. Special thanks to the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for use of archival material.

In the 64 years since the so-called Miracle Mile race between Roger Bannister and John Landy the mile record has fallen by nearly 17 seconds. And more that 1,400 athletes have now run sub-four-minute miles. While it remains an incredibly difficult goal, the myth of the impossible four-minute mile has been well and truly shattered. But why don’t we hear about the international push to break the current mile record of 3:43.13 seconds? It’s hard to say for sure, but for one thing, it’s not a round number. For some reason, it doesn’t capture the imagination the way the four-minute barrier did. I want to look into this phenomenon of round numbers as powerful reference points a bit more.

This time, at a gas station. We wanted to test the theory that round numbers are meaningful to people in a context where they don’t actually matter that much to the bottom line. If you pay for gas with cash, there’s some small benefit to hitting a round number at the pump. Say the pump reads $19.59. You might be tempted to top up the tank to $20 even, so you don’t have to carry around coins in your pocket. But we wanted to see what happened when people paid with a credit card or debit card.

Speaker 8: How are you paying today?

Speaker 9: Credit.

Speaker 8: How much gas do you predict you’re actually going to be able to get in the tank today?

Speaker 9: Probably, 40-something, 43, 46, somewhere like that.

Speaker 8: OK.

Speaker 9: It should be just under that. 41, 41.91.

Speaker 8: OK, great.

Speaker 9: I’ll put a little bit more in, go to 42.95.

Speaker 8: I noticed after it clinked, you kept going a little bit. Why did you keep going after it clinked?

Speaker 9: You always try to round the number up to the round dollar number, and it never, ever works. It only goes to 42 then 42.02, and you go, “I’ll put a little bit more in.” I was trying to get it to 43 even. I just wanted a whole number with no cents.

Speaker 8: Why do you think you wanted to get to 43 even? Why did you want to get to that round number?

Speaker 9: It’s just neat. It’s a bit like playing the slot machines.

Speaker 8: How much did you put in today?

Speaker 9: Just $25.

Speaker 8: Why did you choose $25?

Speaker 10: Because I’m a broke dude.

Speaker 8: But, by that logic, you could have put in $24.50, so why did you choose $25?

Speaker 10: Because I’m weird and I like full round numbers.

Speaker 11: It’s easy. Our brain works on 20s, 25s, 30s, 10s, 100s. That’s for me, anyway. That’s how I look at it. I like to be able to have that nice round number. It could be OCD, I don’t know.

Speaker 12: But, probably, because it looks nicest for most people.

Speaker 8: Would you ever put in an odd-number amount, an uneven amount of, say, 29?

Speaker 13: No.

Speaker 8: Why not?

Speaker 16: Because it … it just wouldn’t come to mind.

Katy Milkman: Pumping to a round number didn’t happen every time, but it happened a lot. This preference for round numbers is common, and it makes sense. Round numbers are pleasing to the eye. They’re easier to remember and easier to mentally process. If I tell you to add 10,000 and 4,000, you could do it right away. 437 plus 729 might take you a bit longer. People tend to use round numbers when estimating and guessing, as well. It’s basically a way to simplify the world.

This preference for round numbers can lead to some strange behavior. It’s been shown that men of certain height range tend to round their height up to six feet in their online dating profiles, for instance. It can cause people to round down, or up, by substantial sums when negotiating on the sale price of a house. While this preference might sometimes cost you money at the bargaining table, round numbers can also help you achieve your goals. To get into the science behind goals and round numbers, I invited Devin Pope onto the show. Devin is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. Devin, thanks so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.

Devin Pope: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for the invite.

Katy Milkman: Well, let’s start by talking a little bit about what goals are and why they influence people’s behavior. Can you talk a little bit about what these things are and why they matter?

Devin Pope: Yeah. It’s interesting, right? From a very standard economics perspective, you might imagine they don’t matter very much. Because often times we’ll set a goal, but there’s no contract attached to a goal. There’s nothing that says that I’m going to have to pay out a bunch of money if I don’t reach this goal. At least, these soft goals that we often times make. They do matter and we all know this. To me it seems like these goals are often meant to impose psychological costs and benefits on ourselves.

If I have a goal to hit a certain weight, I convince myself to feel bad if I don’t hit that weight. I convince myself to feel good if I do. These goals are soft commitments that we make that end up having actual rewards attached to them because of our psychology.

Katy Milkman: It makes me think about my fitness tracker and how it jiggles when I get to 10,000 steps. Sometimes I take extra steps in the bedroom before bed, which drives my husband nuts, because I’m at like 9,750, and I can’t bear to go to bed before 10,000. Is that normal?

Devin Pope: Well, yeah. Yes, for your sake I’ll say it’s normal. No, for sure, it is, right? That jiggle, little things like that can be enough to really motivate us, which could be surprising if you were just thinking about pure economic theory. It does matter. The psychology matters.

Katy Milkman: Can you talk a little bit about the tendency people have to set goals at round numbers?

Devin Pope: Let me give, maybe, a couple of examples. If I asked you what is the most common marathon running time, your answer might be “somewhere around four hours” if you’re familiar with marathons. A better answer would be three hours and 59 minutes or three hours and 58 minutes. A lot of people finish marathons right before these round numbers. They do the same thing at three hours and 29 minutes and 2 hours and 59 minutes.

What’s clear from the data is that people are wanting to just beat round number goals. It appears that they are setting these goals at round numbers. If you just ask them, they also say, “Yeah, my goal was to run less than a four-hour marathon.”

Katy Milkman: That’s really interesting. What are some other settings where people have these kinds of round number goals besides running?

Devin Pope: So for example, Uri Simonsohn and I find that SAT takers are more likely to retake the SAT if they fall just below a round number. For example, if you got an 1190 on the SAT, you’re much more likely to retake the exam than if you got a 1200.

This is the type of round number goals that might actually be a bad thing. Maybe if you got a 1200 you should also be retaking the SAT. Yet, you don’t feel quite such a strong motivation to do so because you’ve already hit a round number goal.

Katy Milkman: Can you think of any studies or findings that point to ways we can best harness goals to help people achieve more?

Devin Pope: My colleague, George Wu, here at the University of Chicago, has been working with runners and encourages them to set goals. Again, goal-setting behavior can be this really good thing. He asks runners that are about to run a marathon to actually write down and think about a goal. Most of them have already thought about some goal, but having them write it down makes it a little bit more concrete. They often choose these round numbers, again, as their goal.

What he finds is that those people that he asks to have them write down their goal compared to a control group that didn’t write down their goal, the ones that wrote down their goal end up running faster. Again as you make these goals have stronger and stronger psychological rewards, both benefits and costs for making it and not making it, it can lead to a change in your motivation.

Katy Milkman: Why do you think people use round numbers as goals so often?

Devin Pope: I think it’s still a little unclear, but I think there’s a couple of potential reasons. One is that it’s just convenience. You have to choose some goal. It makes more sense to choose a goal of getting a 3.0 GPA as opposed to getting a 2.987. It’s just convenient to choose round numbers as goals. They’re easy to remember, so it’s something that you can kind of motivate yourself and think about easier.

Another explanation is related to a different bias, which is called left-digit bias. This bias argues that people pay attention more to left-digit numbers than digits that are further to the right in a number. This bias would explain why stores price things at 2.99 and, of course, that’s because it feels cheaper than if it was priced at $3.00 because you’re kind of focused on the 2.

It could be that another reason why people have round numbers as goals is because if you can run a three hour and 59 minute marathon, it just seems a lot better than running a four-hour marathon. There’s this kind of discontinuity in terms of how cool it seems because we care about these left digits a bit.

That’s another reason why we might set round numbers as goals. For example, not very many people want to buy their wife a .99 carat diamond, but one carat diamonds, that’s a very nice diamond. You feel kind of cheap if you do a .99 carat diamond. It feels like something’s different about .99 and one.

Katy Milkman: Devin, this was so great. Thank you very much for joining and explaining how goals and round numbers work.

Devin Pope: Thanks for having me, Katy.

Katy Milkman: Devin Pope is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology. An original podcast from Charles Schwab. Fixating on arbitrary reference points can adversely impact your finances. Think about big decisions we all face eventually like when to retire and when to claim Social Security.

Our sister podcast Financial Decoder explores topics like these. Mark Riepe, who’s head of the Schwab Center for Financial Research, hosts the show. Check out the second episode where Mark and his guest, Rob Williams, offer ideas to help you formulate a Social Security plan that’s right for you.

You can find it at Schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

As I mentioned before, this preference for round numbers can result in some peculiar behavior. Buying or selling investments when they hit magic numbers can cost you money. Overfilling your gas tank is probably not a great idea. Rounding up your tips at restaurants can get expensive. But you can also leverage this bias.

I mentioned my fitness tracker buzzing at 10,000 steps earlier. Hitting that magic number makes me feel good. And it’s good for me. Goal setting—and goal setting particularly at round numbers that really resonate for you—can have a material impact on your motivation to stick with an exercise routine or a savings plan or a diet regimen.

Gary Latham and Edwin Locke are two of the most prominent researchers on goal setting. After evaluating dozens of their own studies, as well as studies by other scientists, they concluded that goals can most usefully direct our attention towards outcomes we’re trying to achieve when they’re specific and difficult but also not outrageously tough.

Losing five pounds this month might be a solid goal, not some weight and not the outrageous 25 pounds or the easy one-pound goal. Research by Chip Heath, Rick Larrick and George Wu has shown part of the reason goals are so effective is that if we fail to achieve them, we feel like we’ve lost out on something important. And losses loom larger than gains, as we’ve discussed in past episodes.

Goals are also great for sharing. If you make a public commitment to a goal, you’ll stand to lose even more self-respect if you don’t achieve it than if it’s just a private goal.

If you have some weight you’ve been meaning to lose, or a nasty habit you’re trying to break, or a new routine you’re hoping to kick-start, you might want to pick a round number goal that’s tough but not completely out of reach.

Tell everyone you know, and watch your motivation climb. A careful plan of attack should be able to get you to the finish line. Just don’t go too far and beat yourself up over narrowly missing a difficult goal. After all, a four hour and one minute marathon is still a really good time.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. While you’re there, you can subscribe for free. Same goes for other podcasting apps. Subscribe and you won’t miss an episode.

Next time on the show, a dramatic story from a pioneer in the field of transplant surgery and a look at how it’s not always rational to judge your decisions based on how they turn out.

I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.

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