Sorry, Wrong Number

I was going to write a simple post on numerology, but the more I looked into it, the more the topic expanded in multiple directions, from I Ching to Kabbalah, coincidences (which I wrote about here) to the equivalent of a horoscope or a personality test (which are kind of the same thing)—and that’s just the beginning. Seriously, numerology (basically reading some kind of mystical meaning into numbers and numerical patterns) is perhaps the most pervasive pseudoscientific belief system out there.

I call it pseudoscientific because I think the hint of math lends it a false sense of legitimacy, just as science is often twisted or misunderstood in ways that seem to give credence to other pseudosciences (such as intelligent design, astrology, ESP, etc.). Perhaps it should be called pseudomathematical instead. And I see it more as a belief system than a single belief because numerology can refer to multiple different number-related superstitions—many of them that will lead you to conflicting results. This is particularly true with the numerological personality test.

The personality test using numerology basically involves assigning numbers to letters, such as in your name, and then adding the single digits together repeatedly until you get down to one number, which is your super special awesome number (and that of hundreds of millions of other people, but that’s neither here nor there). There are various systems for assigning the numbers, but the simplest is to number the letters of the alphabet from 1 to 9 repeatedly.

1 = a, j, s

2 = b, k, t

3 = c, l, u

4 = d, m, v

5 = e, n, w

6 = f, o, x

7 = g, p, y

8 = h, q, z

9 = i, r

So if we use just my first name, we get 4531595. Then add those digits together, and we get 32. Add those digits and we get the super special awesome numerical window into my soul—5. Did you get a 5 too? If so, that means we are practically the same person.

(Fun fact: The math behind this is actually interesting. The result you get will always be the remainder after dividing the first number by 9. If the number you get is 9, then there is no remainder. It’s mathemagical!)

Next, we look up the meaning of our number. You can find various meanings all over, so I just went with the listing on, because if anyone is an expert, it’s got to be Shirley, amiright? She includes the numbers 11 and 22, which means if you get one of those numbers after adding digits, you don’t add the two digits together.

Here’s my reading for my first name:

5 is the number of Uncertainty and Hesitance. Fives have a tendency to worry about things that will never happen. They are often restless, irritable, moody and feel the world owes them. But don’t lose faith. These vibrations can be overcome and when that happens, a five is a healthy, thriving, contribution to the world.

Huh. I don’t know if I like that. I think I’ll go with Paul Sadowski’s instead, which kind of says the opposite:

The characteristics of #5 are: Expansiveness, visionary, adventure, the constructive use of freedom.

Or izodiaque’s:

a) One of the best name numbers.
b) Popular: People with name number 5 become popular in their own group or community
c) Positive
d) Best name number for business people
e) Successful

Oh, flattery and clever respelling of zodiac will get you everywhere, izodiaque!

Or I can just use my first and last name, and get a 9 instead, which according to Shirley means I’m probably telepathic. Awesome.

9 is the number of Psychic Consciousness, Humanitarianism, and Renewed Energy. Nines are clever, intuitive, active and extremely philosophical. Quite often nines are telepathic. They have high ideals and standards and expect others to have the same ethics. They easily, and logically solve problems, theirs and their friend’s, even when the friend doesn’t ask for help.

In fact, I can get just about any number using different forms of my name, such as first, middle, and last, or various nicknames. So basically, the results of the numerological personality test can be whatever I want them to be if I just use different name formats or different sources for the number meanings. And that’s not even getting into the different systems for assigning numbers to letters or using my birth date instead of my name.

In other words, numerological personality tests are foolproof. They will always be accurate because you can just decide that the one that tells you what you want to hear or what rings true is the “accurate” one. Convenient.

Another reason personality tests and horoscopes and similar statements, whether numerologically based or not, often seem to be accurate is the Forer effect. In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer gave his students a personality test then returned the exact same result to every one of them. He then asked them to rate the accuracy of the result, 1 through 5, with 5 meaning the result totally applied to them personally. The average was 4.26. According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the test has been repeated multiple times since then with an overall average of 4.2 out of 5.

In other words, personality descriptions in horoscopes, personality tests, and similar tend to be generally applicable to most people. Selective thinking and confirmation bias play a role as well. We tend to focus on the characteristics that confirm what we think is most true about ourselves and downplay those that aren’t as accurate. It’s usually easy to say that a particular characteristic applies sometimes to us. Most people, for example, can be described as an extrovert or an introvert depending on the situation.

So numerology as the basis for a personality test fails not only because there’s no clear rationale (or evidence) to support why a particular number or mathematical operation is meaningfully connected to a letter or person, and in fact, many different (and often conflicting) systems exist, but also because personality tests in general fail as accurate indicators of who we are, as demonstrated by the Forer effect.

Math really is fascinating, as is the age-old question Who am I? There really aren’t shortcuts to finding out the latter. You have to show your work.


Image credits: greywulf, Dave Gostisha, Cliff1066, and Gary Scott (

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+


  1. May 5, 2012 at 9:46 pm —

    Wow, look at that, I’m a 5, too. I guess we’re both soul mates who probably once had tea together in the past life when we were light beings floating around in the celestial ether. At least it’s encouraging people to learn basic addition?

    I’m reaching. Numerology seems like a failed attempt to pin some kind of significance to a difficult subject, but it’s the wrong kind of significance. Math can be used to figure out so many legitimate things about how the world works aside from translating combinations of letters into secret code numbers.

  2. May 6, 2012 at 10:22 am —

    We should totally form a 5 support group to get over our loser vibrations.

    You hit the nail on the head, I think. Math is so amazing for genuine reasons, just as the universe is fascinating scientifically without astrology, and evolution is an unending source of awesomeness in so many ways, with tendrils everywhere, that ID and creationism simply pale laughably in comparison.

    I think that part of all this is narcissism. People want to believe they are special, the center of the universe, whether that presupposes a creator or a horoscope/numerological/personality test focused on them.

  3. May 7, 2012 at 11:49 am —

    Funny co-inky-dink. I typed my name in spelled correctly first, and then with an o, instead of ø, and I got “6 is the number of Indecision and Excess.”

    And a bit of further testing shows Shirley’s script can’t handle Norwegian characters. Doing it manually I’m a 1: “People whose name resonates with this number are often leaders, pioneers and boundless sources of energy.” Indeed, apart from not really being a leader, pioneer or a viable energy source.

  4. May 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm —

    So I should scrap my blueprints for a Bjornar-powered automobile? Bummer.

    And hilarious to think about Norwegian characters or any non-English characters/alphabets! Great point! Pythagoras is supposedly the father of numerology (or the cult following him was), so maybe numerology should use the Greek alphabet to be truly accurate.

    Someone alert Shirley!

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