Confessions of a Numbers Guy

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Admit it. How many of you read the headline and immediately thought of running the rackets? Tsk, tsk. Too many late-night gangster movies watched on AMC for you!

No, this numbers guy has nothing to do with gambling. I’m not worried about some random fed chasing me down on some random RICO charge. These numbers deal with only one thing: math in its various (legal) applied forms.

My high school teachers knew me better than I knew myself. For four years I paraded from class to class singing the hosannas of science. In science class I asked the toughest questions (especially in physics). In social studies class I trumpeted the scientists during the Age of Enlightenment. In English class I rebelled – even to the point of denying any affection for science fiction (except for Star Trek). Who needs science fiction when we have science fact! (BTW, Star Trek immersed itself in science fact, which is why so much of the amazing technology in the original series has become reality today. Still waiting for a reliable transporter beam, though.)

I spewed the praises of science in all classes except math. There, I buckled down and swam joyfully in a sea of numbers. I spoke to them and they spoke to me. It was a personal conversation. No one seemed to notice or mind.

Or so I thought.

As I began to take my first step across the stage at graduation, a hand held me back. That was a signal they would read more than my name. That meant I was to receive an award. My heart pounded with excitement. Finally, all my proselytizing on the nature and virtue of science would be recognized for all to see!

Much to my chagrin (and outright disbelief), the superintendent announced I had earned the math award, not the science award. Crestfallen, I walked across the stage sporting a plastic smile to hide my embarrassment.

It’s often hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to self-analysis. We’re too close to ourselves to see who we really are.

In retrospect, numbers (math) offer a far better description of my persona than do formulae (science). Whether it’s filling out checklists of each numbered baseball card in a set or that incessant desire to keep score whenever we went bowling (in the days when humans, not machines, kept score), numbers defined my childhood.

Even today, my job has me looking at numbers. Each day I come to work and scan the latest economic statistics. Then, for fun, I dig into revenue numbers of individual companies. Note, this is not in an engineering sense, like an accountant might look at these same numbers. It’s more like an explorer, perhaps a scientist, but most definitely a private investigator.

It’s all about connecting the dots, looking for patterns to emerge that have never been seen before (or at least not seen by enough people so as to provide a competitive edge (see “The Secret to Winning: Look for Patterns of Success,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, February 22, 2018). For the most part, not only has this strategy proved reasonably successful, I also have a lot of fun doing it.

Does that make me unique?

Others may think so, but I don’t.

I’ve never understood why so many people have what psychologists call “math anxiety.” As I once infamously told my daughter’s AP Math teacher, “Math is easy.” I really believed it at the time (and still do). I just didn’t know why it was true. Now I do. And I’ll share it with you right now.

Ironically, two famous psychologists, B.F. Skinner and S.S. Stevens built their academic careers on mathematical modeling and analysis. Unlike me, neither were math nerds. Indeed, both were more at home in English class (Skinner was a failed novelist and Stevens spent his undergraduate years studying philosophy, writing, and debating). They learned their math skills only after they became professional psychologists.

While studies on the subject date from as far back as at least 1972, an article by Sheila Tobias and Carol Weissbrod in the Spring 1980 issue of Harvard Educational Review defined math anxiety as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganization that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem.” The disorder exhibits both physiological and psychological conditions.

In 2017 (several years after I made my comment to Cesidia’s math teacher), a study by University of Chicago psychologist Alana Foley concluded people who exhibited math anxiety tended to do poorer in math tests and people who did poorer in math tests tended to exhibit math anxiety. Each reinforces the other.

How do you solve this chicken and egg question? The answer to that question requires understanding the roots of the problem.

One study suggests teachers may be the source, although not in the way you think. It’s not what they teach, but their own predilection towards math. “The more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype or belief that ‘boys are good at math and girls are good at reading,’” wrote the authors of a 2010 study on the impact of teachers’ math anxiety.

Five years later, those same researchers looked at parental causes. Psychological Science published a study in 2015 suggesting math anxious parents, too, can transfer math anxiety to their children, with one important caveat. University of Chicago psychologists Sian Beilock and Susan Levine concluded “We found that when parents are more math anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year and have more math anxiety by the school year’s end—but only if math-anxious parents report providing frequent help with math homework.” Think about that the next time your kids ask for help.

Much of the focus on math anxiety focuses on “easier problems,” “fewer ‘right and wrong’ answers,” and generally making the teaching environment more “user friendly” (i.e., less competitive, less exacting, and eliminating negative consequences resulting from wrong answers). If this doesn’t sound like the real world to you, join the club. Worse, these techniques may subtly reinforce the “math is hard” mantra that enables math anxiety.

Math anxiety hurts us as a nation. It’s responsible for financial illiteracy. It can also lead to poor public policy decisions. It needs to be addressed. The best place to start is at home and in the classroom. The more teachers and parents confidently project a “math is easy” demeanor, the less likely children will exhibit math anxiety.

What was that I said a couple of weeks ago about needing to write something about self-fulfilling prophecies?


  1. I enjoyed this column, especially as one who abandoned math early in my childhood because of the perception that everyone else “was getting it” but me. Now I know it wasn’t a matter of intelligence but buying into the myth that girls aren’t good at it.

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