Reasonable Doubt

The Mysterious Impact of Being an Age That Ends in 9

Studies show that “nine-enders” are prone to do more ambitious and extreme things. Does the same hold for countries?

Maya Kroth
Elemental
Published in
6 min readFeb 4, 2019

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Illustration: David Jien

TThere’s something different about the number nine. We know this intuitively, right? It’s why everything on late-night infomercials is priced at $999.99 instead of a cool thou, and why a dress marked up to $39 sells better than the same dress sells at $34. It’s like there’s an urgency associated with being pushed right up against a big round number — something that makes us want to act before the ticker rolls over to zero.

Maybe I’m thinking about this because I’m facing a big birthday this year — the one that used to mean someone would buy you a mug with “Over the Hill” on it — or maybe because it’s 2019, an uneasy, uneven year that stretches out long and desolate, standing between us and the glittering promise of 2020.

Turns out there’s actually data that suggests being an age that ends in nine—29, 39, 49, 59, etc. — may lead us to do things we are less likely to do at other ages.

I first came across the concept of the “nine-ender” in Daniel Pink’s recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The term was coined by marketing psychologists Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield, who in 2015 published a paper arguing that people who are staring down the end of a decade engage in “meaning-seeking behaviors” — both positive and self-destructive — more frequently than they do at other ages.

It started with greeting cards. The researchers wondered: Why is the supermarket greeting-card rack dominated by cards commemorating big milestone birthdays?

“It’s funny because it’s arbitrary,” says Hershfield, now a professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “Turning 30 or 40 or 50 doesn’t really mean anything; it’s not like it’s qualitatively different.”

“That milestone age is an opportunity to either do really stupid shit or get a grip, reevaluate your life, and do something about it.”

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Maya Kroth
Elemental

Itinerant journo, ex @fulbrightprgrm Spain & @sipiapa_oficial in Mex, interested in siesta, travel, food, journalism, bicycles & bourbon.