BACKGROUND: Lower numerical ability is associated with poorer understanding of health statistics, such as risk reductions of medical treatment. For many people, despite good numeracy skills, math provokes anxiety that impedes an ability to evaluate numerical information. Math-anxious individuals also report less confidence in their ability to perform math tasks. We hypothesized that, independent of objective numeracy, math anxiety would be associated with poorer responding and lower confidence when calculating risk reductions of medical treatments.
METHODS: Objective numeracy was assessed using an 11-item objective numeracy scale. A 13-item self-report scale was used to assess math anxiety. In experiment 1, participants were asked to interpret the baseline risk of disease and risk reductions associated with treatment options. Participants in experiment 2 were additionally provided a graphical display designed to facilitate the processing of math information and alleviate effects of math anxiety. Confidence ratings were provided on a 7-point scale.
RESULTS: Individuals of higher objective numeracy were more likely to respond correctly to baseline risks and risk reductions associated with treatment options and were more confident in their interpretations. Individuals who scored high in math anxiety were instead less likely to correctly interpret the baseline risks and risk reductions and were less confident in their risk calculations as well as in their assessments of the effectiveness of treatment options. Math anxiety predicted confidence levels but not correct responding when controlling for objective numeracy. The graphical display was most effective in increasing confidence among math-anxious individuals.
CONCLUSIONS: The findings suggest that math anxiety is associated with poorer medical risk interpretation but is more strongly related to confidence in interpretations.