"Math anxiety also has been found to impair working memory."
"This is the first study that we know of to take math anxiety to a health and risk setting," said Parrott. "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."
However, math anxiety also increased for people who had 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 did not significantly affect the understanding of the message.
Participants also reported they believed that statistics presented in messages were 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 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.
The researchers, who reported their findings in the online issue of the Journal of Health Communication, recruited 323 university students for the study. The participants were randomly assigned a message that was altered to contain one of three different ways of presenting the statistics: a text with percentages, 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.
"My goal is to help people make informed decisions and to do that, they need to understand and comprehend messages," said Parrott. "Food policy, in particular, interests me because having enough food to feed people is a really big issue that we're facing."
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