Making Maths Count

Maths in Psychology

August 3, 2016 by No Comments | Category Psychology

Claudia Hammond, presenter on “All in the Mind” on BBC Radio 4 and author of “Mind over Money: the psychology of money and how to use it better” published by Canongate, tells us how maths is used in psychology and the ways in which both can save you money.

At school I was someone who enjoyed maths. I liked playing with numbers and can remember being fascinated by some of their quirks such as the first ten multiples of the number 9 always adding up to 9 (e.g. 9×6=54 and 5+4=9). But I was always interested in people as well and after doing a mixture of arts and science A levels I looked around for a subject that might combine my interests. That was when I discovered psychology.

There a lot more maths in a psychology degree than many people realise and statistics classes at 9.00 a.m. on a Monday weren’t everyone’s idea of fun. But human behaviour which seems messy and difficult to research, can start to make sense when you apply maths to it in the right way.

Whatever your experiment, it’s maths that will tell you how likely it is that your result occurred by chance and how likely it is that you have found something real, something you can be confident about recommending. For example, Elizabeth Dunn, a psychologist in the United States, wanted to know whether spending money on ourselves or on others, makes us happier.

So one morning she gave people envelopes containing $20. Half the people were told they had until 5.00 p.m. to spend the money on a treat for themselves and half had to spend it on someone else. Then at the end of the day they all filled in questionnaires which score your mood. The psychologists were left with two sets of scores, but without maths they couldn’t be sure that these results hadn’t just occurred by chance.  With the help of statistical techniques they were able to demonstrate that there was a 95% chance that people’s mood is improved more by spending money on someone else than on themselves. Dozens of other studies back up this finding.

Human behaviour might seem to have little to do with maths, yet it can be explored using it. Today I present programmes on psychology on BBC Radio 4 and write books about psychology, such as “Mind over Money: the psychology of money and how to use it better”. My job involves looking at the best psychological research from around the world which involves reading a lot of articles from scientific journals. A lot of people skip the results section that’s full of statistics and move straight onto the discussion, but buried in those tables you can discover some extraordinary things.

I’ve been looking at our relationship with money and why we’re not always as good at spotting a bargain as we think. Something as simple as the layout of items in a shop, can influence our perception of what is good value.

The compromise effect is one to watch out for. If you’re shopping for a new laptop, you’ll notice that both online and in shops, they’re often laid out in threes, with one that’s cheap, one that’s mid-priced and one that’s way out of your price range. But experiments have shown that just because the expensive item is present, twice as many people buy the mid-priced one. If it isn’t there, they stick with the cheapest one.

So to be good with money, it does help to be good at maths (to work out what a percentage discount really amounts to, for example), but we also need to be aware of the subtle cues going on around us that are influencing our behaviour without us even realising it.

A lot of people are anxious when it comes to maths and I often hear people say that they’re just not the sort of person who’s good at maths. But decades of work from Professor Carole Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University has found that children who believe that abilities at subjects like maths are fixed, make less progress. Those who haven’t done so well in the past believe they’ll never be any good at it. And there’s even a downside for the maths genius too.

Her studies show that if they believe they are innately brilliant at maths, some turn down more challenging problems for fear of failing at them. Instead she wants to promote what she calls a “growth mindset”. The idea is that intelligence isn’t fixed and that with the right support any of us can be good at subjects like maths.

I went to watch a summer maths camp in California which was putting this research into practice and it was extraordinary to see children who’d struggled with maths, suddenly enthusiastic when they were taught in the right way and when they were told that anyone could do it. In one lesson they were spotting patterns on the blackboard. In another they were outside trying to build sculptures from string. Gradually they realised that all of them had something to contribute and that numbers can sometimes be fun.

Claudia Hammond will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 14 August to discuss our relationship with money and why the best things in life are free.

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