OPINION11 March 2024

Crawford Hollingworth: Making sense of numbers

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Behavioural science Impact Opinion

Numerical skills are vital but often overlooked. The Impact columnist considers how to make numerical information easier to understand.

black and white image of a cut out shape resembling the human brain with mathematical symbols written on top

We all know the importance of plain English for improving consumer understanding and decision-making. Much has been written on how to write effectively. Most recently, Harvard behavioural scientists Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink published Writing for busy readers: Communicate more effectively in the real world.

Sadly, we have not seen the same focus when it comes to tackling numerical blindness, yet many lack basic numeracy skills, with the UK one of the worst performing nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. A 2011 survey found that nearly half the working-age population has the numeracy levels expected of a child aged 9 to11. Only a fifth are what we call functionally numerate – the equivalent of a GCSE grade 4 (C) or above.

Chip Heath, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford School of Business, has said: “Maths is no one’s native language. At best, it is a second language,  picked up at school through formal training.”

Just as behavioural science has highlighted how plain English can ...