Why We Can’t Choose Random Numbers

Human psychology is actually very predictable when you know a bit about how the brain works and this means that you can often spot when we have had a hand in something. While we might think we can make something look random, we actually fall into a number of traps that draw attention to our involvement.

Take a random number for instance. You might think that you know how to choose a random number but in all likelihood you are probably falling for a number of common mistakes that are giving the game away. So common are these mistakes in fact, that governments and organizations actually use algorithms and software in order to identify ‘fake’ random numbers and thereby catch out people who are trying to fake their taxes or write bad checks.

Here we will look at how unconscious psychological patterns prevent us from writing truly ‘random’ numbers…

Descending Sequences

The number 8,631 might look like a ‘real’ random number, but in fact it has one of the hallmarks of a fake number. The reason for this is that it employs a descending sequence, meaning that the numbers become lower in value as they go on. Partly this comes from our understanding that the number furthest to the left is the ‘biggest’, which then causes us to assign higher values to those digits.

Ascending Sequences

Likewise, the number 1,368 is also more likely to be ‘fake’. While descending numbers are more common, ascending numbers are also preferred by our unconscious because we’re so used to seeing numbers arranged consecutively. Some people might also ‘overthink’ their random number and come to the conclusion that numbers where the left-most digits are very high would be ‘unrealistic’. When writing a tax return, writing the first digit as a high number would make the overall value much higher and thus we might shy away from it.

This is an error in thinking however, as the number 1,368 is obviously no more ‘unlikely’ to occur than 1,286, even though it is not in sequence.

Missing Zeros

When conjuring numbers out of thin air, we have a tendency to avoid zeroes. This is again because we actually think that incorporating a zero will make the number look more fake because we think of round numbers as ‘coincidences’.

At the same time, many of us still don’t think of zeroes as ‘numbers’ in the same sense as other digits and thus we might not think to include it when searching for numbers.

In reality, zeroes account for ten percent of the digits in large numbers (which is because there are ten digits). However, in fake numbers, they tend to account for only four percent. So our slightly more realistic 1,286 number could be made even more realistic by adding in a zero and making it 1,086.

No Repeats

Another thing we tend to avoid is repeating digits. Again this is likely because we are trying to avoid what we see as ‘coincidences’, but also because we are thinking of each digit individually rather than thinking of the number as a whole. We think of five unique random digits, rather than thinking of one unique five digit number.

Favorite Numbers

When writing lots of random numbers, we tend to fall into patterns and start to prefer particular sequences. For instance, the Ponzi scheme scam artist Bernie Madoff was eventually caught out due to his repeated use of ’88’ and ’66’.

And it would be a terrible idea to use your birth date or any other identifying information if you were trying to create a random number.

So that’s how you spot a random number, or how you write one that is less ‘obviously human’. We’re not encouraging that you start writing bad checks now, but rather it’s just interesting to reflect on how various unconscious factors can end up influencing our behavior even when we’re trying specifically to be random and unpredictable…

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