Study Shows One Personality Trait Is Most Important for Math Skills

Mismatched skills can be just as bad as no skills at all.

Unsplash / Antoine Dautry

Are you bad at math, or do you just think you’re bad at math?

Researchers reported on Monday that math skills only lead to certain benefits in life when they’re also paired with confidence in those skills. Their work was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In their paper, they show evidence that math skills yield real benefits when it comes to both financial stability and health, but a lack of confidence in one’s abilities reverses that benefit.

Led by Ellen Peters, Ph.D., a professor of science communication at the University of Oregon, the team wanted to see how math skills and math confidence affected a self-reported measure — personal finances — as well as a measure that couldn’t be exaggerated in a self-reported survey — the progression of lupus. In two studies, the team concluded that the interaction between math skills and confidence in one’s math skills significantly affected both of these outcomes in similar ways.

“In both studies, participants who had high numeric ability and high numeric confidence did the best. They reported more positive financial outcomes and they were the least likely to need additional treatment for highly active disease,” Peters writes on Twitter.

“Those who had similarly high confidence but low ability (the overconfident) had the worst outcomes in both personal finances and health,” she adds.

Confidence in one's math skills is necessary to benefit from them.

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How Math Skills and Confidence Are Related to Finances

In the first study, a survey of 4,572 individuals demonstrated that those who had high math abilities experienced better financial outcomes (less debt, no payday loans, things like that). But for people with the same level of skills who lacked confidence in their abilities, that benefit was canceled out. By the same token, people with low skills and high levels of confidence in their skills also experienced poorer financial outcomes.

And even though these two results are both based on a mismatched set of attributes, the outcomes have quite different explanations.

In the first case, the study’s authors write, people with good math skills who doubt themselves may shy away from being the financial planner for their household because of a mistaken belief that they can’t handle it. This leads to poor planning for the future and related poor financial outcomes.

In the second case, people who are bad at math but confident in their math skills are prone to making errors, yet they still proceed enthusiastically, without realizing they’ve made serious mistakes. These individuals, the authors write, may refuse help from others. This unjustified confidence can lead to poor financial planning, the kind that may even take them by surprise.

Sabine Peters

How Math Skills and Confidence Are Related to Health

In a second study, 91 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus were tested on their math skills and confidence, and the progression of their disease was tracked through their medical records. There may not appear to be a clear connection between a person’s math skills and the progression of their disease, but the authors write that there’s actually a bunch of ways in which being good with numbers can matter for someone with a chronic autoimmune disease:

…some interventions and changes require objective numeracy — for example, to understand the risks and benefits of drugs, titrate medications correctly (e.g., prednisone), and make good health insurance and provider choices. Other interventions and lifestyle changes require persisting with the same numeric task over time like adhering to multiple timed medications, navigating frequent treatment changes, adopting healthy behaviors, and attending appointments.

Just as with the first group, the lupus patients showed similar effects when it came to the interaction between math skills and confidence. Patients with good numerical skills and high confidence in their abilities showed the slowest disease progression, and those with poor math skills and low confidence showed more serious disease outcomes.

And just like in the financial planning survey, those with mismatched sets of skills and confidence had worse outcomes.

Effectively saving for retirement has clear benefits for one's quality of life.

Unsplash / Max Harlynking

Numeracy and Old Age

With medical science making it possible for humans to live longer and longer, effective financial planning will play an increasingly large role in the quality of life that we experience in old age. As indicated in this study, a person’s health and financial security later in life may depend heavily on their ability to manage their finances.

Unfortunately, an estimated 73 million Americans are innumerate — the math version of illiterate — meaning they don’t have the math skills to manage their money.

Fortunately, this research shows that skills aren’t the only part of this equation. If you are innumerate, having an accurate perception of your abilities can give you the chance to seek help from a family member or professional financial planner. In that case, knowing the limits of your skills may be the greatest skill of all.

Abstract: People often laugh about being “no good at math.” Unrecognized, however, is that about one-third of American adults are likely too innumerate to operate effectively in financial and health environments. Two numeric competencies conceivably matter — objective numeracy (ability to “run the numbers” correctly; like literacy but with numbers) and numeric self-efficacy (confidence that provides engagement and persistence in numeric tasks). We reasoned, however, that attaining objective numeracy’s benefits should depend on numeric confidence. Specifically, among the more objectively numerate, having more numeric confidence (vs. less) should lead to better outcomes because they persist in numeric tasks and have the skills to support numeric success. Among the less objectively numerate, however, having more (vs. less) numeric confidence should hurt outcomes, as they also persist, but make unrecognized mistakes. Two studies were designed to test the generalizability of this hypothesized interaction. We report secondary analysis of financial outcomes in a diverse US dataset and primary analysis of disease activity among systemic lupus erythematosus patients. In both domains, best outcomes appeared to require numeric calculation skills and the persistence of numeric confidence. “Mismatched” individuals (high ability/low confidence or low ability/high confidence) experienced the worst outcomes. For example, among the most numerate patients, only 7% of the more numerically confident had predicted disease activity indicative of needing further treatment compared with 31% of high-numeracy/low-confidence patients and 44% of low-numeracy/high-confidence patients. Our work underscores that having 1 of these competencies (objective numeracy or numeric self-efficacy) does not guarantee superior outcomes.
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