GMF Message Comprehension Falters When Math Anxiety Prevails
February 27, 2014

Gentically-Modified Food Message Comprehension Falters When Math Anxiety Prevails

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

New research has found that people who experience anxiety around performing mathematical equations are less likely to understand information on genetically-modified foods and other health-related issues, according to a report published in the Journal of Health Communication.

"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," said study author Roxanne Parrott, a professor of communication and health policy at Penn State. "Math anxiety also has been found to impair working memory."

The scientists learned that math anxiety resulted in lower comprehension for people who read figures in a message about genetically modified foods, while higher math skills and a confidence in those skills led to better understanding. Interestingly, reported math anxiety rose for people who had high math skills and confidence in those skills when given a message about genetically modified foods.

"Perhaps this is due to performance anxiety," Parrott said. "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.'"

For the study, the study team enrolled over 320 university students. The volunteers were arbitrarily assigned a message that had one of three different ways of presenting statistics on genetically-modified foods: a text with percentages, a bar graph or both text and graphs.

Scientists assessed the volunteers' math skills, confidence and anxiety before reading the message. After the message was presented, the scientists again assessed the volunteers' levels of math anxiety – as well as their comprehension of the message, feelings about the message's importance and the message’s objectives it was trying to communicate.

Parrott said future research must look to see if math anxiety plays a very similar role in other kinds of health-related messages. The scientists said they looked into genetically modified food messages because the topic is current and the discussion surrounding food purchases and safety is on the rise.

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

"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," she added. "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."

"My goal is to help people make informed decisions and to do that, they need to understand and comprehend messages," Parrott said. "Food policy, in particular, interests me because having enough food to feed people is a really big issue that we're facing."