The Milestone Syndrome – Numerical Plateaus and Their Implications

It was a miserable day, winds gusting up to 15 miles an hour, and the tailing ends of a two-day rainstorm drizzled over the cinder oval. It was the day of the long-standing track meet between Oxford University Athletic Club and the team from Britain’s Amateur Athletic Association. When they stepped to the line at 6 P.M. for the big race, the wind had subsided and the rain had stopped. Only about 400 spectators were there to see the race, but the sporting press, sensing a momentous event, was well represented.

Many said that no one would ever break the four-minute mile, but on this brisk treacherous day in England in the spring of 1954, Roger Bannister did just that, covering the distance in 3:59.4.

The next day, newspapers around the world printed huge headlines publicizing the world record time. The media explored every facet of the race and the man who won it. Yet those runners who had previously approached this record time and those who later surpassed it did not receive the same adoration and acclaim. What made Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile so miraculous, more miraculous than similar feats by other competitors? What created this worldwide fascination? Such attention is symptomatic of the Milestone Syndrome.

Almost ten years later in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a similar feat took place. The Philadelphia Warriors, with their league-leading scorer, Wilt Chamberlain, took the floor against the lowly New York Knickerbockers. Wilt, now in his third NBA season, was the most prolific scorer in basketball. He was a rare combination of strength, speed, and stamina and on this night, the Knicks saw it all. The Dipper, as he was called, sank 36 field goals on 63 shots and hit 28 foul shots, racking up a total of 100 point for the game. All three numbers still stand alongside the 100 points as NBA records.

News accounts of the game indicate the small crowd of only 4,124 spectators who clamored for Wilt to hit the century mark. They chanted, “Give it to Wilt!” and his teammates obliged passing up open shots to feed Wilt the ball. New York was not so accommodating and set out to foul Wilt’s teammates before the ball could be passed into the pivot. Philadelphia countered by easing up on defense to get the ball back quicker. They even fouled the opposition to stop the clock. Such tactics by both teams illustrate the Milestone Syndrome, our fascination with numerical plateaus, with benchmarks, and quantitative/linear evaluations.

This phenomenon extends beyond sports and into our daily lives. In the supermarket, you will find the most popular last digit is nine (61 percent), followed by five (19 percent). Even numbered digits make up less than 2 percent. These subtle pricing ploys have become important weapons in marketing arsenals. You see, most people perceive $1.99 as much cheaper than $2 because they read and process the prices from left to right. And the jump from $9.99 to $10.00 is an enormous psychological leap for the bargain hunter.

However, when it comes to quality people often use price as a clue to how good a product might be. In expensive stores such as Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom, most tags are rounded off to the nearest dollar. These valuations enhance the store’s image and influence the buyers’ perceptions. If prices were perceived as too low, the affluent clientele might question the quality.

How do these numerical perceptions evolve? Some are the product of faulty or lazy thinking while others are invented hype. In addition, with repeated usage these perceptions become bigger than life. For example, for 20 years the four-minute mile stood as an apparently unsurpassable limit and thus this psychological obstacle was firmly implanted in the public’s mind. In a similar vein, the emphasis given to the Dow surpassing each 1,000-mark plateau laid the groundwork for banner headlines when the 10,000 mark was reached. Another example of how we glorify certain numerical milestones is the big hullabaloo surrounding the 2000 New Year’s Eve celebration.

Why should these events be given added importance when, logically speaking, their only importance is being a numerical plateau? A second less, a point more, a year earlier or later, where is the significance? Is this media hype or is there some scientific basis for this added emphasis?

Psychologists have a number of explanations for such behaviors and most reflect on our need to be on the winning side. Triumphs, even if sometimes illusionary, contribute to our enjoyment and uplift our egos. In addition, when pursued in mass, milestones give a common bond that give validity to the goal and contribute to our sense of belonging. Peer acceptance and the safety net offered by being part of the herd also contribute to these assessments. However, one must also consider the dramatic implications and our need to create mythological heroes. Heroes that journey into the unfamiliar, do battle, and gain the reward–surpassing milestones.

In baseball, statistics are used extensively in calling the game. Numbers are an integral part of the game as they determine strategies as well as the level of fan appreciation. When mythical plateaus enter the picture, they affect not only how the game is perceived but also how it is played. Putting up good numbers now overshadowed other aspects of the sport. A player hitting consistently over.300 has a bigger fan following, is paid considerably more than a player hitting.290. It’s not proportionately more it’s considerably more. Baseball, more than any other sport, rewards those surpassing milestones; a pitcher winning 20 games or players hitting 30 home runs and stealing 30 bases, or driving in over 100 runs. In sports, marketing today stresses the stars, not the teams and putting up memorable numbers certainly helps in that endeavor.

In sports, business, even politics, milestones fit in with our news-bite mentality. They simplify objectives, establish linear perspective, and support our competitive nature. They also fulfill a need for that which is tangible and quantitative. They make it easier to keep score, easier to justify actions.

For centuries, military minds have gauged their success based on numerical achievements, i.e., distance advanced, damage inflicted, number of enemy killed. Campaigns are designed and often-tenuous objectives are set to appease the egos of the high command. However, on the battlefield, succumbing to milestone syndrome can have horrendous consequences. The battle of Passchendaele in World War I is a classic example where the quest for a victorious milestone overshadowed common sense. British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig had set his sights on breaking through to the distant Belgium ports of Ostaend and Zeebrugge. Both French and British leaders as well as Haig’s own Intelligence Staff opposed the offensive. Despite these objections, General Haig gave the order to attack, July 31, 1917.

In heavy rain, the ambitious frontal assault bogged down at Passchendaele, a village that no longer exists, and yet the General threw more men into the slaughter. The ensuing battle costs the British 400,000 lives to gain a mere five miles of mud. Six months later, the British abandoned Passchendaele to reinforce lines elsewhere.

General Haig was so caught up in the increments of battle he was willing to give up countless lives to claim a numerical victory. This particular battle demonstrates another facet of the Milestone Syndrome, that once a numerical contest is initiated, our egos are unlikely to consider other forms of resolution. The rules of engagement are set and all that matters is the quantitative scorecard.

This fixation, this obsession to demonstrate numerical victories is also prevalent in the corporate world. In this computer age, almost every facet of business is measured and the benchmarks or milestones are very much in vogue. There is an old saying in business: What gets measured is what gets done. Unfortunately, management measures so many things they do not pay attention to any of them. Likewise, few companies know how to process these measurements and know where to intervene to change outcomes. Moreover, items difficult to measure such as quality, safety, innovations, employee engagement and customer satisfaction become secondary, as they do not fit neatly into the spreadsheet paradigm.

The Milestone Syndrome also plays a role in stock market fluctuations. Many aggressive investors will dump a stock when earnings fall below expectations even slightly. That can cause a drop in the stock’s price that is unrelated to its true value. When benchmarks are not met, investors abandon the perceived loser and pursue something better. This simplistic ritual drives the market, feeding on its own greed or fear, perpetuating chronicles that perpetuate more projections. It’s a never-ending cycle and decision plateaus continually shift finding their level of comfort, selling, buying, or holding firm. Perceptions and expectations create these illusionary milestones that are based on limited assumptions. In addition, in such a market, the Game Theory applies–that everyone else is making choices based on similar assumptions.

The Milestone Syndrome also affects how we handle negotiations. Numerical plateaus such as ten thousand increments, going from five figures to six, and the all-important million mark are milestones that can be either enhance or diminish one’s bargaining position. If you are asking for a raise and your sales have surpassed the million-dollar mark, you have a strong psychological advantage. However, if you are asking for a raise from five figures to six, that extra digit presents a pronounced barrier.

How we appraise quantitative values affects our decision-making and sometimes our happiness. We chase the numbers. Then we become caught up in their implications. A young woman may dread turning the age of thirty. A car owner may brag about his car reaching the 100,000-mile mark. The football crowd will applaud a runner surpassing 100 yards in a game. These are all psychological plateaus to which we give added importance. The price of a diamond jumps when it reaches a true half-carat or full carat. A 0.49-carat stone is priced a lot lower than a half-carat…and a 0.90-carat diamond goes for much less than a one-caret stone. Yet the difference in the size is almost imperceptible.

Other malformations of the Milestone Syndrome should also be considered. Focusing only on the numerical draws us away from pursuing other worthy achievements. As an example, in Europe, employees strike over issues such as working conditions, vacation time, and health benefits while in the United States, negotiations center on wages. Dwelling primarily on the numerical increments reduces exploration into abstract innovations and the inclination to investigate non-quantitative benefits.

If we allow it to, the Milestone Syndrome can affect us and the consequences can range from a joyful celebration to devastating lose. We must choose and awareness is our only protection. The symptomatic treatment requires understanding the forces of hype, psychological barriers and our own egos. I have used various examples to illustrate this phenomenon and this last one presents a thought-provoking question. A seller of height-building shoes says his best prospects are not short men but men who are 5-foot-11 and want to be 6-foot-plus. What would happen if scales of measurement were change to metric?