Despite high objective numeracy, lower numeric confidence relates to worse financial and medical outcomes

General Information

Despite high objective numeracy, lower numeric confidence relates to worse financial and medical outcomes
Ellen Peters, Mary Kate Tompkins, Melissa A. Z. Knoll, Stacy P. Ardoin, Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, and Alexa Simon Meara
Publication Type
Journal paper
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
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.