Math anxiety makes GM food data hard to decipher

"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," says Roxanne Parrott. (Credit: iStockphoto)

People who feel intimidated by math may have a hard time understanding messages about genetically modified foods and other health-related information, according to researchers.

“Math anxiety, which happens when people are worried or are concerned about using math or statistics, leads to less effort and decreases the ability to do math,” says Roxanne Parrott, distinguished professor of communication arts and sciences and health policy and administration at Penn State. “Math anxiety also has been found to impair working memory.”


A new study published online in the Journal of Health Communication, shows that math anxiety leads to a decrease in comprehension for people who read statistics in a message about genetically modified foods, while an increase in skills in math and a confidence in those skills led to better comprehension.

The researchers investigated genetically modified food messages because the topic is currently in the news and developing smart policies on food acquisition and safety is increasing.

“This is the first study that we know of to take math anxiety to a health and risk setting,” Parrott says. “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.”

People who have lower levels of math skills and who have less confidence in their ability to do math had higher levels of math anxiety. However, math anxiety also increases for people who have high levels in both math skills and their belief in those math-solving skills when exposed to a message about genetically modified foods. The math anxiety in high-skilled individuals does not significantly affect the understanding of the message.

“Perhaps this is due to performance anxiety,” Parrott says. “It’s a sense of ‘I know I can do it and I have the skills to do it, but it is making me anxious to apply my skills.'”

Face your math fears

Participants in the study say they believe that statistics presented in messages are more important than those presented on a bar graph, according to the researchers. The perceived level of importance of the messages may make text more persuasive than graphics.

The study underscores the need to improve math skills, and one’s confidence in one’s skills. It also emphasizes that anxiety about facing tasks that require math or statistics skills likely reduces efforts to understand consumer warnings and other health information that relies on numbers.

“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,” says 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.”

For the study researchers recruited 323 university students that were randomly assigned a message that was altered to contain one of three different ways of presenting the statistics: a text with percentages, a bar graph and both text and graphs. The statistics were related to three different messages on genetically modified foods, including the results of an animal study, a Brazil nut study, and a food recall announcement.

Researchers measured the participants’ math skills, confidence, and anxiety prior to reading the message. After the test, the researchers again measured the participants’ levels of math anxiety, as well as other abilities, including their comprehension, sense of the message’s importance, and intentions.

Future research should determine whether math anxiety plays a similar role in other types of health risk messages. “My goal is to help people make informed decisions and to do that, they need to understand and comprehend messages,” says Parrott.

Source: Penn State