The psychology of 11/11/11: Pattern recognition and scarcity

11:11:11 on 11/11/11
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Paine

It was 1992.  I was sitting in Mrs. Henderson’s class writing down the date for an assignment, MM/DD/YY format, when it struck me that those numbers would all match on November 11, 2011.  After determining that I would probably still be alive, I made a mental note that I had to do something special on that far-off date (which, incidentally, turned into this post).

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who makes a big deal about repeating numbers in dates.  Several product release dates have been slated for 11/11/11 (such as the much-anticipated Skyrim).  The wedding industry has also seen a huge clamor for ceremonies on 9/9/09, 10/10/10, and 11/11/11.

So why all the hoopla for what is, in fact, a man-made label?

I see two psychological processes at play in the excitement about repeating dates: pattern recognition and scarcity effects.  Human beings are incredibly good at finding patterns.  We’re so good at it, in fact, that we tend to find patterns where they don’t actually exist.

Our pattern-finding ability often manifests when we deal with numbers and repetition (as evidenced by the gambler’s fallacy).  In random number generation, for instance, streaks of numbers are seen as especially unlikely and will cause people to doubt that the numbers are random at all.  So although dates are not random, it isn’t surprising that people take notice of a series of 6 1s presented in perfectly symmetrical pairs.  11/11/11 is unquestionably a thrill for a pattern-detecting machine like our perceptual system.

Once we detect the pattern, however, it’s a different psychological process that causes us to see it as somehow valuable — which, I’d argue, relates to its perceived scarcity.  When we think of 11/11/11, we think about the fact that this series of numbers won’t happen again for another 100 years.  Which is true.  Yet in considering this one date, we often fail to consider that we are surrounded by other such patterns.  In recent years we have seen 1/1/01, 2/2/02, 3/3/03, all the way through 11/11/11, and next year it will be 12/12/12.  That’s not to mention other patterns such as 1/1/11, 1/2/03, 12/11/10, and so on.  Yet those other patterns don’t come to mind when we realize it’s 11/11/11.  No — this date is something special.

Which is what makes it so powerful to connect this date with special occasions and product releases.  Not only is it memorable (repetition is extremely low effort, cognitively speaking), but the specialness of the date becomes associated with the event itself.  It becomes a cue to remind consumers to make the purchase (“Oh, 11/11/11 — that’s when Skyrim comes out!”), or a memory cue for the future (“I’ll never forget our wedding date.”).  And by giving consumers an action to take, you’re allowing them to in some sense acquire that special moment, for a limited time only, until it’s 11/12/11 — not special at all.

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