Friday, 2 December 2016

Math Anxiety and your ability to make informed decisions about your health.

Baseline Risks, and Risk Reductions... What does this all mean?

Image result for doctors officeImagine, you are in a hospital room and are given a devastating medical diagnosis that will impact your life in a long-term lens. How would you be able to cope with this news? Additionally, do you feel that you are well equipped to make an educated decision on your next moves? Researchers from the United Kingdom in October 2016 came across a startling finding that, individuals who identified as being math anxious were less likely to correctly interpret baseline risks and risk reductions, as well as being less confident in their risk calculations. Moreover, these individuals were also less likely to correctly assess the effectiveness of their treatment options.
Allowing the patient to make up their own mind.
            This research article can be extremely important for critical situations, such as determining which medical procedure is best suited for your current situation. An individual’s understanding of treatment options can make the difference between life and death. The question becomes, how do we ensure that all patients make the right decision?

As defined by Ashcraft (2002), math anxiety is commonly defined as a “feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (p.181). Rolison, Morsanyi, & O’Connor (2016) describe objective numeracy as one’s understanding of chance and probability (p.877). Absolute risk is defined as your risk of developing a disease over a period of time. Relative risk is used to compare the risk between two groups of people (Newson, 2014). An example of this would be individuals who smoke cigarettes. For example, they may have a risk of 1 in 20 of developing lung cancer due to their habits and this would be the absolute risk. The relative risk would involve comparing individuals who smoke to individuals who do not smoke and the risk of developing lung cancer between the two groups. 
The Research
In order to come to these findings, researchers conducted two different experiments.
Experiment #1: Participants were given two scenarios, one was an “impersonal scenario” about a man who faces an important medical decision, while the other scenario was a “personal scenario” in which the participant had to imagine experiencing frightening medical symptoms and then make a medical decision.
Experiment #2: Participants underwent the same procedure as Experiment #1, but in this instance, individuals were provided with graphical displays when making important medical decisions. These displays allowed information to be clearly conveyed in regards to the risks of the various medical procedures.
Image result for happy patients in hospital

In both experiments, all participants completed an objective numeracy test which measures an individual’s understanding of chance and probability. Individuals also completed the Mathematical Anxiety Rating Scale which measures math anxiety in educational settings.

The Findings
The researchers discovered that math anxiety was associated with lower objective numeracy. In addition, math anxiety and lower objective numeracy both tended to be associated with females. This correlation means more females identify as being math anxious and have less understanding of chance and probability. Those who were not math anxious and did not have a lower objective numeracy (meaning they were better at assessing chance and probability) were more effective at:understanding treatment risk, rating effective treatments appropriately, and making more confident risk calculations (Rolison, Morsanyi, & O’Connor, 2016).
In contrast, those with math anxiety had less understanding of the risk level associated with medical treatments. This relationship did not exist when understanding of probability and chance was excluded from the analysis. This suggests that people’s perception of probability and chance plays a role in risk assessment. Additionally, math anxious individuals were less confident in their risk analyses of treatments, and their rating of treatment effectiveness. The common theme in these findings was that participants better understood absolute risk rather than relative risk. Therefore, risk reductions should be communicated to the public through absolute terms. Another important finding found that graphic displays are highly effective in increasing confidence among high math-anxious individuals. These findings have extremely practical implications for the medical field through improving communication of risk between doctors and patients, and improving patient comprehension through graphical displays.

Image result for doctor holding graphs
Applying research to your next medical check-up!
The amount of math anxiety individuals feel can severely inhibit appropriate decision making in situations where rationale is critical. It is important to consider graphic displays when making medical decisions for yourself and others. If you identify as a math-anxious individual, it is highly suggested that you ask for absolute risk information for the medical procedure as well as a graphic representation of your medical dilemma.
By: Kristina Giacobbe


Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185.

Newson, L. (2014). Absolute risk and relative risk. In Health Information. Retrieved from

Rolison J. J., Morsanyi, K., O’Connor, P. (2016) Can I count on getting better? Association           between math anxiety and poorer understanding of medical risk reductions. Medical Decision Making, 876-886.

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