Though mathematics is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity, many humans actually have an aversion to the subject. Researchers call this “math anxiety” and new research is showing that the condition can influence people in a variety of situations. A new study from researchers at Pennsylvania State University is now showing that math anxiety can significantly affect the way health-related information is received.
More specifically, the study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, showed that math anxiety can lead to less comprehension of messages that include statistic or are based on numbers. The opposite was also found to be true: those with higher confidence in their math skills were better at comprehending such messages.
“This is the first study that we know of to take math anxiety to a health and risk setting,” said Roxanne Parrott, a co-author of the study and a . “Math skills have become a common element in many health and risk message studies, which addresses the skill component of math competence but ignores the cognitive and affective components.”
The study looked at 323 university students, giving them one of three messages arranged with varying amounts of text, percentages, and graphs. By measuring the participants’ math confidence, skills, and anxiety, researchers found the connection between math anxiety and message comprehension. In addition, study participants with math anxiety also assigned more importance to written statistics rather than graphs, demonstrating how math graphics, often thought to simplify data, could be less effective than text.
“This is one more piece of evidence about the importance of applied math education, in which students tackle real world messages and content when learning math skills,” said Parrott. “We have to focus on teaching people math, but also we need to tell people that they do have the skills, and find strategic ways to communicate that ease anxiety and worry about understanding math.”