Blog post

Understanding emotion and numbers in difficult times

The coronavirus pandemic has meant people are being exposed to many important statistics on a daily basis. Dr Tom Hunt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Derby, gives advice on how to understand the numerical data and manage emotional responses.

By Tom Hunt - 15 May 2020

Since the start of the coronavirus lockdown people have been bombarded with numbers. The daily government briefings have focused on ever-changing statistics that emphasise the tragic circumstances society currently finds itself in: the rate of infection, amount of personal protective equipment, the death rate, testing targets, dates and timelines, and lots more.

With the deluge of numbers regarding coronavirus being presented via several forms of media, people have little choice but to be exposed to them whenever they turn on the TV, radio, or are faced with news notifications via their phone, tablet or laptop. But to what extent are the numbers making sense to people?

Making sense of the statistics

After all, many of the figures are very large - often into the tens or hundreds of thousands. Interpretation of the statistics often requires context. Firstly, there are comparisons over time, eg whether the daily death rate increased or decreased. Secondly, there are comparisons with others, eg is the daily rate of testing greater or lower than that observed in other nations? Thirdly, and the most subjective, sensitive and controversial, is the concept of absolute numbers relative to what they represent. That is, a numerical value of 1, in itself, may appear to be a small number. A figure of 20,000 may, in itself, appear to be a large number.

So, when does a big number become an important number? What number has to be reached before action is needed or before a person has an emotional response to what that number represents?

This is especially the case in medicine, which sees the constant intertwining of numbers with moral decision making. For instance, medics who are making decisions regarding prioritisation of ventilators, with such decisions based partly on known figures (eg there are x ventilators available), and partly on approximations (experience and studies are saying there is a x per cent likelihood a person may die without a ventilator).

Data and decision making

However, medics are humans, not computers. Decision making may need to take into account non-numerical factors such as instinctive responses, tiredness, upset, and anxiety. The vast majority of the general public will not be faced with decisions of this magnitude. However, many people are still faced with difficult decisions that involve both numerical understanding (eg understanding what a particular probability level means) and an emotional response (eg how would I feel if my partner or child became ill). Such decision making may, for example, revolve around whether to self-isolate from loved ones "just in case".

Some research even points to evidence that a form of "psychic numbing" may result from our inability to appreciate loss of life as the number of lives lost increases. Further research has demonstrated the greater likelihood of people to lend support when messages highlight individuals in need rather than groups. It is thought emotion plays a large part in such decision making. These findings are pertinent given the increasing loss to life we are currently experiencing, especially in the context of government and media messages concerning high infection and death rates.

In the face of the pandemic, governments across the world have had to make decisions based on a range of numerical and non-numerical factors. Lockdown has invariably affected people in all sorts of ways psychologically: loneliness, boredom, fear, confusion, denial, worry, to name just a few. But to what extent do numbers feed into how people respond, psychologically and behaviourally?

Maths anxiety

There is much empirical evidence now that shows many adults to be maths anxious. That is, the experience of panic, confusion, worry, and dread that people have when faced with numbers; that can be numbers alone, having to perform a calculation, or even when observing others doing or talking about maths. We now know quite a lot about the ways maths anxious people respond. A typical behaviour of a maths anxious person is to avoid maths.

Is a person who is maths anxious and who already has pandemic-induced anxiety really going to view a number-laden news report or daily government briefing? Recent research evidence suggests that highly maths anxious people are more likely to have difficulty estimating larger or more unfamiliar numbers. Given the frequency of messages in the media concerning hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests, people, and equipment, it is easy to see how such figures may be viewed differently by people who feel anxious around numbers. Other research has shown how maths anxiety is associated with less rational decision-making and even poorer decision making on the basis of medical risk information. Such findings have never been so relevant.

According to the Building a Numerate Nation Report published by the charity National Numeracy at the end of 2019, only 22% of adults in England have skills roughly equivalent to GCSE grade C or above. The report also highlights the findings from an Ipsos MORI poll of 2,000 16-75 year-olds, in which they tested people using a brief set of multiple choice maths questions. The results showed that a staggering 56% of respondents scored roughly equivalent to the level expected of a primary school child.

Considering the prevalence of maths anxiety and arguably the poor state of the nation's numeracy skills, it starts to become apparent why there is sometimes a sense of confusion or misunderstanding among people as to why certain decisions have been made during the current pandemic. The flattening of the curve is partly a mathematical concept. For starters, to interpret a chart depicting this, one must understand how to view an x- or y-axis and how the points plotted on the chart become meaningful in the context of these axes. The underlying concept relates to numbers: quantifiable resources. That is not to say that everyone who is maths anxious has poor numeracy skills, but research evidence has consistently shown a link between maths anxiety and arithmetic performance. This is particularly notable in the case of more complex numbers or maths that is more abstract. It begs the question of how many people are secretly struggling to understand the numerical component of current government decisions.

Handling data and emotions

Of course, there will always be different opinions on what government strategy should be when faced with a pandemic such as the one we are experiencing now. However, it is important to bear in mind that understanding key messages may be more about a person's poor numeracy skills, their maths anxiety, or a combination of these. People should not feel afraid to seek help from compassionate others if they feel anxious when faced with government statistics or news headlines.

It is hard to process and interpret the volume of numerical information being communicated at this time; possibly even harder if you are maths anxious and have limited numeracy skills. There is much advice available to support those who are experiencing maths anxiety - see our free, online crash course for instance, and for some very effective resources to support those who would like to develop their numeracy skills - try the National Numeracy Challenge, for example. Working towards lower maths anxiety and improved numeracy skills may enable people to better understand and process statistics and messages that are presented to them during the pandemic and beyond, with the potential to positively impact decision making and psychological wellbeing.

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About the author

Tom Hunt
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

I am a lecturer and researcher in psychology, with a specific interest in maths anxiety: the causes, consequences, and what we can do to reduce it. I work directly with teachers and students to support pedagogical practices and enable people to reach their potential, not allowing anxiety to get in the way.