Numerical Illiteracy, it’s Worse than You Thought


Today the most fascinating experiment on the human condition took place on (of all places) Facebook.  When I took my somewhat usual stroll into check Facebook this morning I happened upon a post with a very simply math equation: 9-5+5*0+3=?

Apparently this has been floating around the Internet for a little while, but this was the first I've seen of it.  I looked at the equation and quickly did the math.

The answer is 7.

Shockingly, there was a bunch of people who wanted to claim the answer is 3.

Now, I can see how one gets to that answer–by violating order of operations–but this post (or more so it's comments) validated something I don't like to admit: we're Americans we suck at Math.

A screen shot from what I saw is posted above.  I especially like the one post stating: “7, really?  It's 3.”

And this is Why We're Worried

When it comes to financial planning, an advanced grasp of mathematics is not required, but there are a few basics you kind of need to have covered.  I've always been baffled at people's inability to calculate percentages (discussion for another day).

The worrying notion here is: if they can't get this one right, what else are they getting wrong?

Americans are in debt and don't save nearly enough.  Most of them fail to see the problem with the situation.  Here's an interesting anecdotal look at how soon-to-be college graduates at a relatively well respected institution look at spending and debt.

What my point?  Well, if you can't figure out how the answer to the problem above works out to 7, you might need a little help navigating through financial decisions, so drop us a line and we'll help you out.

2 thoughts on “Numerical Illiteracy, it’s Worse than You Thought”

  1. I think there is a lot of evidence that people generally have problems with large numbers (e.g. Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, 1988 and Beyond Numeracy, 1991), poor at understanding probabilities (Taleb, Fooled by Randomness, 2001), poor at understanding the risks of highly unlikely events (Taleb, The Black Swan, 2007), and poor at processing information in general (Kahenman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011).

    To expect otherwise from people (or even be surprised at these failures) is itself a failure of common sense. We need to accept this and design systems that are robust to these failures, or antifragile to them (Taleb, Antifragile, 2012), that is, systems that actually improve when these known errors occur.

    How that is done is an exercise I leave up to the insurance specialist ;-P

  2. Well, I already knew I was bad at math, always have been (one of the many reasons I was a Literature major in college). For instance, I thought the answer was 12, because I have no idea what that asterisk * indicates, so I ignored it. I wish there was an explanation how the equation equals 7, because now I’m curious.


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