Dialing some phone numbers affects emotional state

Dial ‘5683’ on your phone: how does it make you feel?

A German psychologist says that cell phones have ‘hacked into our brains’, and that just by typing the numbers that correspond to the letters in a word like ‘love’, we can activate the meaning of the word in our minds.

Sascha Topolinski of the University of Würzburg created a list of German words that can be typed on a cellphone keypad without typing the same digit twice in a row. Each number combination could spell only one word.

For one experiment, Topolinski used a set of number sequences. Some corresponded to positive words, like 54323 – ‘liebe’, or love – and 373863 – ‘freund’, or friend. Others represented negative words, such as 7245346 (‘schleim’, or slime) and 26478 (‘angst’, or fear).

Volunteers were given a cell phone with stickers over the buttons so they could only see the numbers, not the corresponding letters, and were told to type the number sequences.

After typing each one, they rated how pleasant the experience had been. The volunteers believed they were taking part in a study on ergonomics, and in the debriefing afterward, none had any idea that the numbers might relate to words.

On average, the volunteers preferred dialing numbers that related to positive rather than negative words. Merely dialing the numbers that corresponded to those letters was enough to activate the concepts in their minds.

The same thing happened with another group of volunteers who were asked to dial phone numbers and then identify words on a computer screen immediately afterwards – they were able to identify words that were implied by the preceding phone number more quickly than words that were had nothing to do with it.

Topolinski relates the findings to a psychological concept called ’embodiment’ – the idea that certain body movements can make you think about related ideas. Clenching a fist makes people think about power, for example.

“But this is a new door in embodiment research,” Topolinski says. “I could induce ‘slime’ or ‘love’ — any meaning. This was a kind of a motor cipher that you can encode into the muscle system and use to induce a variety of ideas in participants.”

The work has practical implications, too. In another experiment, Topolinski had volunteers type numbers relating to specific types of businesses; a word that implied the German word for ‘jewelry’ for a jeweler, or ‘apartment’ for a rental office.

After dialing the phone number and hearing an answering machine message, volunteers rated the business on its attractiveness. When the number matched the business, volunteers gave the business a higher rating than when they were mismatched.

While many business owners use numbers that correspond to relevant words to make them easier to remember, the new research gives an added reason, says Topolinski . “If you are a lawyer, try to get a phone number which implies the word ‘justice’, or if you have a donation hotline, include the sequence 4483 for ‘give’,” he says.