Professional athletes are known to have some serious rituals and superstitions, very few of which would survive under the microscope of scientific scrutiny.
But new research from UCLA found that one superstition plaguing NFL position players might actually have some scientific merit.
According a 2019 report from ESPN, many NFL wide receivers have began ditching their previously popular jersey numbers in the 80s, instead opting for lower digit numbers in the teens.
While each athlete has their own reason for making the switch, multiple players who spoke to ESPN said the change was for aesthetic purposes, thinking the lower numbers make them look both slimmer and faster than higher numbers.
Silly, right? Well, not so fast say researchers at UCLA.
A new study published by the university, found that there might actually be something to that idea.
Researchers conducted two experiments in which volunteers were asked to view images of players wearing jerseys 10 through 19 and players wearing numbers in the 80s. Consistently, the research subjects said the players wearing lower numbers looked thinner, even when the body sizes were the exact same.
The findings, UCLA says, suggest that a person’s perception of body size might be influenced previously learned associations with numbers and size.
“How we perceive the world is highly influenced by our prior knowledge,” said Ladan Shams, a UCLA professor of psychology and neuroscience, who was quoted in the original ESPN story. “In our daily lives, numbers written on objects — on a bag of sugar in the supermarket or weights in the gym — usually represent the magnitude of the objects. The higher the number, the bigger or more massive the object generally is.”
Previous research on the topic has found that the human brain is good at detecting and storing statistical associations and regularities, Shams said, and those previous associations can affect they way we perceive things in the future without our direct knowledge.
The NFL previously had strict rules about what numbers wide receivers could wear. For the majority of the league’s history, it was limited to 80 through 89. in 2004, that restriction was modified, opening the door for wideouts to nab a number in the teens, which were previously reserved for quarterbacks and kickers.
By 2019 when the ESPN article was published, nearly 80% of wide receivers chose to wear a number between 10 and 19.
Shams is a specialist in the “science of perception” and has been digging deep into the football number theory since the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on her other projects.
She developed an online survey to put the player hypothesis to the test. Respondents were shown computer-generated images of players in identical poses, but with different body sizes, skin colors and jersey colors and were asked to “judge their slenderness.”
Participants saw each player twice, once while wearing lower jersey number and once with a higher number. In general, players whose jerseys were in the teens were perceived as thinner than their counterparts in the 80s, regardless of all other factors.
Once the pandemic eased, Shams conducted the same test in person. This time, though, they only used jerseys that used the same numbers in different combinations, just to be sure the width of the number 8 wasn’t throwing the experiment off.
Using jerseys with the numbers 17 and 71, 18 and 81, and 19 and 91, the results were essentially the same. Athletes who wore lower numbers were perceived as thinner, although the effect was “somewhat smaller” the second time around.
Shams said the results of both tests “strongly support” the hypothesis that the brain leans on learned associations between numbers and an object’s size. UCLA says those findings are consistent with previous research.
Those learned associations generally help the brain interpret visual information that can sometimes be unreliable or ambiguous. The ability to perceive the world faster and more correctly is an important part of survival.
While the numbers and public perception have no effect on an athlete’s actual performance, Shams said the research highlights the importance of representation and is a perfect example of the types of perceptual and cognitive biases that humans experience every day.
Implicit bias influences our day-to-day judgment, and can have far reaching impacts beyond something as silly NFL jersey numbers.
“We need to see all kinds of people doing the full diversity of things people can do. We can use the statistical learning power of our brains to reduce implicit bias,” Shams said.
To read more and find a link to the complete study, click here.