It’s certainly not news that Americans are bad at math. And it’s not too difficult to imagine the ways in which our math mistakes can cost us: under-calculating the total of a grocery cart before you hit the register, overtipping at a restaurant, failing to catch a cashier’s mistake in giving you proper change. But new research finds that arithmetic mistakes aren’t the only math-related impediment to smart shopping. It turns out that suffering from math anxiety can cost us, too.
In a study recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Drexel University professor Rajneesh Suri argues that anxiety over needing to do mental math in a shopping scenario — calculating a discount, for instance — takes up valuable brain space and causes consumers to make bad decisions.
“Math anxiety takes up working memory,” Suri explains. “That makes it harder for people to do the task itself and focus on other things.” In his study, that task was shopping, and “other things” meant comparing discounts. Some discounts were presented in a dollars-off format (like a $5-off coupon), while other discounts were presented as a percentage-off (like a 25 percent off in-store promotion). Consistently, Suri found that his subjects preferred the dollars-off — even when the percentage-off promotion lead to greater savings.
“We noticed it happening all the time,” he said. “The dollars coupon was easier to use, so they just used that one rather than the percentage coupon.”
Suri’s study did not allow for the use of calculators, though he says that in other similar studies he’s performed, being allowed to use a calculator did not help consumers with math anxiety or lead to better shopping decisions. “The people who have anxiety, it manifests itself even when they’re told they can use a calculator,” he explains.
It should be noted that by “math anxiety,” Suri doesn’t just mean a dislike of math or an excuse people use to get out of doing math in social situations. It’s an actual condition that affects as many as 85 percent of students and nearly as many adults, according to some estimates. Studies unrelated to Suri’s have found that math anxiety lights up the part of the brain that responds to threats, and that dreading math can even feel painful. And it’s something that can affect even those of us who are good with numbers.
“People who have an ability with math can still be anxious about math,” Suri said. “That was intriguing. You might have a low ability but you might have low anxiety, too.”
So what are the math-anxious to do to avoid making bad shopping decisions? To start, take your time when you’re in the store.
“Most decisions are not one step. If you’re buying a car, you have to buy other stuff with the car as well and they kind of push everything on you at the last minute,” Suri says. “If you’re spacing that you might make all of those decisions better; if you’re under pressure you might only make a few of those decisions well.”
Finally, in addition to giving yourself time to shop, Suri also says it’s important to consider what time you shop.
“The morning is fresher and evening is harder on people; cognitively speaking, you’re more overloaded by end of the day,” he said. “If you have anxiety you might not want to shop at the end of the day.”