Researchers rounded up 323 college students and asked them about their math skills, their confidence in their math skills, and tried to figure out whether or not demands to perform mathematics gave them anxiety. This is a phenomenon apparently known as “math anxiety,” which is exactly what it sounds like—people getting nervous around numbers.
Next, these coeds were presented with messaging about health studies reporting risks of genetically modified food using either percentages in the text, bar graphs or both. After drinking it all in, the respondents were once again asked a series of questions to determine their anxiety and comprehension levels.
The results showed that those people showing the most fret over their numerical performance issues had trouble retaining the information. And if you read stories around the internet today, you’ll see stories that say the same thing. “Math anxiety makes GM food data hard to decipher,” and “Genetically-Modified Food Message Comprehension Falters When Math Anxiety Prevails,” are just two of the headlines I came across.
But that’s not the story.
Also hidden in the study’s data is the fact that if you’re good at math, it doesn’t matter one bit whether or not you’re afraid of numerical ineptitude. You can have all the math anxiety you want, but if you’re well educated in the subject, you’re still going to understand the statistically based messaging. So here’s the real headline…
“People Who Suck at Math Don’t Understand Health Messaging Based on Statistics.”
Jaw-droppingly shocking, no? I’m sure their anxiety doesn’t help, just as it didn’t help them pass those failed math tests in high school, but the bottom line isn’t about anxiety, it’s about competency. So the best way to get the general public to understand health risks is to educate them. Again, not shocking. But in a country where a large portion of the population doesn’t understand why faith and religion is, by definition, not a scientific subject, I don’t have much hope for the future.
The paper, “Math Anxiety and Exposure to Statistics in Messages About Genetically Modified Foods: Effects of Numeracy, Math Self-Efficacy, and Form of Presentation,” was published in the Journal of Health Communication by Roxanne Parrott, Distinguished Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Health Policy and Administration at Penn State, and Kami J. Silk, associate professor of health and risk communication at Michigan State University.