Some people seem to get taken to the cleaners every time they buy a car, subscribe to TV service or get a new cell phone. New research suggests the problem might not be in their wallets, but in their genes.
Brain scientists are starting to get a handle on a relatively new disorder called "dyscalculia," which is loosely described as dyslexia with numbers. While plenty of people are insecure about their number skills, dyscalculics are bad at math in a very fundamental way: Studies indicate their brains can't even recognize groups of five or six objects, or link numeric symbols with their corresponding values.
Researchers believe dyscalculia is as common as dyslexia -- perhaps impacting one in 20 adults, as explained in a recent Body Odd column.
The implications of this disorder for high school algebra students are obvious; but the nightmare it can cause adult consumers is a far more serious -- and largely misunderstood -- social problem.
Dyscalculics often can't count change, said Professor Brian Butterworth, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and perhaps the world's leading dyscalculia expert. They don't understand interest calculation or exchange rates. By the time they become adults, they are so insecure about numbers that they frequently cede all money issues to others, a recipe for disaster.
"Unfortunately, there have been no studies that I know of, looking into the vulnerability of dyscalculics as consumers," Butterworth said. "It would be a valuable addition to this area."
Butterworth's latest research, published in last month’s Science Magazine, focused on the fundamental causes of dyscalculia, which he believes comes from an undeveloped ability of some people to recognize and quantify sets of objects, something called "numerosity processing." But he's also interviewed hundreds of adults who can't perform basic math calculations and he understands the heartbreaking impact the disorder can have.
"One of the first dyscalculics we saw, many years ago, was in prison for shoplifting,” he said. “It turned out that he was too embarrassed to go to the till because of his problems with money."
On his website, MathematicalBrain.com, there's an interview with successful author Paul Moorcraft, who managed to hide his disorder from everyone until he "came out" with the problem at age 55. He'd been making lousy business deals his whole life.
“I was very successful but I couldn’t count. I kept it hidden my whole life … even counting under the table with my fingers at a board meeting,” he said.
This fundamental failure to understand numbers can have far-reaching impacts, Butterworth said.
"Dyscalculics have trouble with PINs. They will try to use the same easy to remember PIN for all their accounts, or write it down. This makes them vulnerable," he said. "If you know you have trouble with numbers, you will entrust your numerical affairs to someone else, and this can also make you vulnerable."
Researchers around the world have just begun to study the impact of the broader problem of financial literacy on the performance of a nation's economy. A 2005 study in the U.K. found that consumers with low numeracy skills earn less, spend less, get sick more and are more than likely to have run-ins with the law. Low numeracy rates cost the U.K. almost $4 billion annually, Butterworth estimates.
In 1988, John Allen Paulos introduced the term "innumeracy" to describe mathematical illiteracy and began the discussion of its cost to society. There are endless studies unearthing depressing results describing U.S. math skills, but here's one from the U.S. Department of Education cited in my book, “Stop Getting Ripped Off.” During a broad test of U.S. adults, only 42 percent were able to reliably pick out two items on a menu, add them and calculate a tip.
Consumers who can't split a lunch check are easy marks every time they enter a car dealership or a bank. If the current recession has taught us anything, we've learned that millions of consumers making bad choices can hurt all of us, so it's everyone's business to improve financial literacy.
Part of the reason for the disastrous prevalence of innumeracy, Paulos speculated, is that being bad at math is socially acceptable. People openly joke about not being "a numbers person." Ever heard someone joke about being illiterate?
Dyscalculia researchers have speculated that the disorder gets less attention than dyslexia and other reading disorders for the same reason -- it's not seen an urgent crisis like illiteracy. Research dollars bear this out. According to Butterworth's paper, the National Institute of Health has spent almost 50 times more money on dyslexia than dyscalculia since 2000 ($107.2 million vs. $2.3 million).
It's important to differentiate dyscalculics from those who are simply bad at math; it’s equally important not to let lazy consumers or math students use it as an excuse.
There's no simple test for dyscalculia, but some professionals will pose challenges like these: Count backward from 100 by 7. A dyscalculic might use his or her fingers to count down one at a time, rather than subtract in groups, or might try to count up from 0.
It's still too early for researchers to speculate on precise causes, but Butterworth believes there is a genetic component. Dyscalculics’ brain scans in his paper show structural abnormalities -- reduced gray matter – in certain areas of the brain known to perform math calculations.
Butterworth's current work involves studying education tools that might help enhance grouping -- numerosity processing – skills early in a child’s development.
Adults who think they might suffer from dyscalculia should be tested by a professional. Adult consumers who fear they might be taken advantage of in their everyday life can learn to work more confidently with a calculator, and would do well to bring trusted friends with them for major transactions, such as buying a car or buying a home.
“There’s no cure, but there are coping mechanisms,” Moorcraft said.
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