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Many Have No Clue About Their Math Ability

Many Have No Clue About Their Math Ability

There is more than one way to be good (or bad) at math, and many people tend to mislabel their abilities, say psychologists at Ohio State University.

In a new study, they found that one-third of people who say they are “good at math” actually scored in the bottom half of an objective math test. On the other hand, about one in five people who say they are bad at math scored in the top half.

“Some people miscategorize themselves. They really don’t know how good they are when faced with a traditional math test,” said study co-author Dr. Ellen Peters, a professor of psychology at the university.

The results suggest that being “good at math” isn’t a single concept, Peters says. For example, those who think they’re good at math — even when their test scores don’t show it — have a numeric competency that may be helpful in some real-life situations.

In fact, people who score high in subjective numeracy (those who think they’re good at math and enjoy working with numbers) are more likely than others to stick with a difficult math task. However, those who were low in subjective numeracy were more likely to simply skip questions during the same math task.

“They just stop giving responses. We don’t know why. It could be a lack of confidence with numbers, or they are just not motivated,” said Peters.

“This has important implications for everyday life. People who are low in subjective numeracy may not do their taxes on time or they may not make thoughtful choices on their health insurance because they just give up when faced with a lot of numbers.”

For the four-day study, 130 college students took tests covering three different types of numeric competency.

The first skill was objective numeracy — the ability to work with numbers and score well on traditional math tests. Questions are similar to the following: “If the chance of getting a disease is 10 percent, how many people would be expected to get the disease out of 1000?”

The second skill was subjective numeracy, which is based on self-reports of ability and one’s preference to work with numbers. This was measured with questions such as “How good are you at working with percentages?” and “How often do you find numerical information to be useful?”

The third skill was symbolic-number mapping — the ability to mentally estimate numeric magnitudes and map them on a number line. This was measured by giving participants a line drawn on a piece of paper that they were told began at zero and ended at 1,000. They were asked to indicate where on the line various numbers (4, 6, 18, 71, 230 and 780) would be located.

The participants were also asked to perform a variety of judgment and decision-related tasks related to numbers. For example, they were asked to rate the attractiveness of various simple and risky bets and to recall numbers paired with objects in a memory test.

The findings showed that people approached each problem through their combined strengths and weaknesses on each of the three types of numeric competency studied.

For example, participants who scored higher in objective numeracy were more likely than others to do actual number comparisons and calculations to determine whether a bet would be tempting or not. Those with high scores in subjective numeracy were more likely to find all the bets attractive, regardless of the expected value of the return.

Interestingly, those who scored high on subjective numeracy were more likely than those who scored lower to respond to all the questions on the memory test — even if they were wrong.

“Some of the ways we can be good at numbers can compensate for other ways that we’re bad at numbers,” Peters said. “That may not work for everyone in every situation, but there is more than one way to be good at math.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.

Source: Ohio State University


Many Have No Clue About Their Math Ability

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Many Have No Clue About Their Math Ability. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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