“If you ain’t first” – A survey in Natural Language

Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash


A few years ago, I surveyed 60 of my colleagues with a set of questions:

“What is the most important number? And why? All answers are acceptable.”

This question simplifies an important aspect of human culture: value. What we find most important shows what we value. I received 67 numbers with corresponding justification. I consolidated the results, which you can see here. What would you answer?



Number Frequency at 67

Number Frequency Raw

The top numbers chosen were #1 and #10. This makes sense because of how our number system has been set up (base 10).



However, I cared less about the numbers. I cared more about how people projected importance onto numbers using their words.

The top words appearing in peoples’ answers: Word Frequency (two or more occurrences)

Here are some simple quirks and explanations from the data.

  • “Most” appears more frequently than “More” and “Many”
  • “All” appears more than “Some”
  • “Always” appears more than “Sometimes”

To match the absoluteness of my question, the answerer had to provide an absolute judgment. Technically, one could say that a number is more of something than the rest. But we don’t see “Than” frequently used.

  • “My” appears more than “We”

This shows how we ultimately judge value through the lens of the self rather than the group. We may rely on group mentality to save time and assimilate, but it’s good that I have the final say.

  • “It” and “Is” and “It’s” appear more than “They” and “Are”
  • “Number” appears more than “Numbers”

This shows that people did a good job of providing one answer rather than many. But sometimes it’s hard to choose a favorite.

  • “And” appears more than “Or”

This could show how people are more decisive about multiple answers to a question. Or, this could show how people are more indecisive about the uniqueness of their answers. The frequency of “Also” could also bring light to this.

  • “Important” appears only one time more than “Favorite”

People hear “important” but think “favorite.” Maybe what we like is most important to us.

  • “First” appears more than “Last”

Often, what’s “last” is not the most important. Sometimes though, it is the most important. But often it’s much easier to define what comes “first” rather than “last” or the rest. So what’s first stands out. We can all agree that both “first” and “last” are more important than “second” because Ricky Bobby said so.

Oddly, the following appear more than once:

  • “Orgasm”
  • “Lebron James”



I don’t have any clear conclusions. This sample was not randomly selected and rigorously conducted. But it’s interesting to think about the results.

If I asked a machine, what would it answer? Natural language processing by machines can interpret the word frequencies and sentence structure using data and algorithms to learn patterns. It could easily tell us the number that is associated with success.

But what is the most important number? Maybe it’s the number that appears most often in quarterly earnings’ calls of companies about to grow.

Or maybe it’s the first number that babies say.

I guess we would still have to decide what values are most important first. Or last.

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