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  • Letters or Numbers: Labeling our Journeys

    Published on September 22, 2021

    Have you ever wondered why you take longer to walk to gate K than to gate 11, where your connecting flight departs? What about a walk from your hotel on 37th street or shopping in a store with aisle S? Cities, airports, and even businesses all label our travels in a multitude of ways, all of which influence how fast we walk and how far we perceive distances.

    A study at Villanova University reveals how individuals process letter and number labels in their immediate environment and how it affects ones daily judgments. According to the study, letter and number labels play a different role on distance perception depending on whether people are contemplating walking or have actually walked. Contrary to intuition, people predict shorter distance with letters; yet take more time to walk with them as part of daily life. 

    The reason is that without readily available cardinal information from letters, people find it difficult to compute distance with them, leading to the perception of shorter distances with them than with numbers. On the other hand, people who walk on letters find that their initial expectations do not hold up well, leading to a disconfirmation with their expectations and, consequently, confusion and a slowed pace on the walk. Meanwhile, when people walk on numbers, they exhibit less disconfirmation with their initial expectations, and thereby do not have as much confusion and do not slow down as much.

    The researcher reached these conclusions by conducting two laboratory studies and two field studies in the areas of seat selection and parking spot detection. People were electronically monitored throughout their walk using motion-activated cameras without being informed that they were being recorded. The footage of the walk was used not only to test the expectation-disconfirmation hypothesis but also to determine if people intentionally slowed down or if walking over letters was more difficult than walking over numbers. A careful study of the walk pattern indicated that people did in fact slow down at a certain middle point, a sign that the expectation did not match reality.

    People perceive world differently based on their distance perceptions, such as judging distance when going through store aisles, locating movie theater seats, searching for parking spaces, or moving through airport gates. The better we understand the world around us, the better we will understand its downstream implications for business decision-makers, city planners, architects, consumers, and many more. Sometimes people make decisions without actually walking, such as whether to pay a price premium for a seat in a movie theater or a flight. While at other times, people walk and that has implications, such as the speed and efficiency of restocking and accessing warehouses, cargo ships, etc.

    Thus the findings of this research provide an understanding of what people expect when destination labels use letters or numbers, as well as lay down the implications for businesses, city planners, and architects. Professor Shelly Rathee, a professor of marketing at Villanova University, conducted the research. For a copy of the paper please find the link here.