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Ellen Peters

Ellen Peters
Ellen Peters

When the Numbers Add Up: How Numeracy Can Lead to a Better Life

Saying that you’re “not a numbers person” just won’t cut it in today’s increasingly complex world. Ellen Peters, who is director of Ohio State’s Behavioral Decision Making Initiative, has spent years studying how numeracy, or numeric ability, can lead individuals to better health and greater wealth. And because the ability to work with numbers can be taught, Peters believes it may be a good target for improving lives.

How can numeracy help people? In one upcoming study, Peters and her colleagues found that greater numeracy ability was related to more use of condoms, even after taking into account general intelligence; knowledge that condoms can protect against disease also mattered, but numeracy retained its own effect. And in a separate forthcoming paper, Peters and her colleagues showed that highly numerate younger patients preferred changing to treatments with improved risk-benefit ratios more than the less numerate who stuck with their status quo more often.

Greater numeracy has also been linked with wealth, and Peters and her colleagues have been uncovering some of the reasons why. More numerate individuals value each additional dollar more than the less numerate and this greater marginal value seems to lead them to maximize their money over many choices. Peters can discuss this and other work showing how numeracy and other ways of knowing numbers are vital skills for people today.

Peters is a professor of psychology.

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