Why You Should NEVER Say “I’m Not a Math Person”

ESPECIALLY, never tell your children, “I’m not a math person.” 

In general, parental involvement is one of the strongest predictors of academic performance. When you get help from your parents with math, this might not be true. The issue isn’t that your parents might not know the math you’re studying. Its possible to encourage someone even when you’re not an expert and just having someone to bounce ideas off of can help. Here’s the scoop: in a study titled “Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety,” in Psychological Science, researchers found that parents that are afraid of math can transfer that fear to their children. The study assessed 438 first- and second-grade students and their primary caregivers. The study concluded that parents, especially math-anxious parents, may need help preparing and should not help their children with their math unless they can get some help first themselves.

Young children use their parents as role models. If a parent says they are “not a math person” or says they have trouble with math, that is a clear signal that its okay to have trouble with math, to not be a math person. Is it okay to have trouble with math? Well, Occupy Math, believes it isn’t. It is similar to being unable to read. I don’t mean that everyone should be able to do multivariate calculus – but not being able to do simple mathematics and being unable to follow basic logic is a crippling disability. It means that you can be deceived by rapacious credit card offers, unneeded insurance, phony investment scams, and even deceptive sales at your favorite store.

Lets look at the statement “I’m not a math person”. This statement has the form of an excuse. Worse, it is an excuse that the person speaking put no effort into.

“I’m not a math person” makes it sound like inability to do mathematics is genetic when it is not. There are some rare conditions, like Dyscalculia, that make people unable to do mathematics, but almost all the people that say “I’m not a math person” do not have a condition like this. After being given excuses by their parents, friends, and even sometimes teachers, people conclude that being able to do math means “I’m not a person” and stop trying. This is, of course, a personal choice that people have a right to make. What frustrates me is that it is a choice similar to getting drunk several nights a week. Both these choices impair your judgment and leave you vulnerable.

Being “not a math person” makes you vulnerable.

One of the pillars of Occupy Math is that creating or maintaining situations where people never learn math is a tool of oppression. The fact that there is an entire industry to help people out of debt suggests that a lack of basic mathematical skills is a real threat. Horrifyingly, credit councilors include some predators who are taking even more money from people who are already in debt. Some people get in debt by bad luck, but many people do it by confusing credit cards with actual money or by falling for line-of-credit pitches involving a vacation to Europe. Having an ability to manage your own budget is not hard – unless you are afraid of math.

So what can be done about all this? Well, if you are helping someone else with math, don’t bond with them over how awful math is. Don’t boast about your inability to do math. As long as we’re on the topic, don’t mention your inability to do math. First of all, we now have research showing that this sort of behavior can hurt the person you’re trying to help. Second, there is a chance that as soon as you stop making your own math incompetence a mantra, chanted every time math appears, you may start losing your incompetence. Modest amounts of practice can build competence and reduce fear. Holding up your incompetence like a cross for warding off a vampire helps nothing – it is your fear’s way of protecting itself. It may help to think of the fear as a disease that you need to get over.

Occupy Math also thinks that we should not just complain about people not being able to do math. Here are some encouraging thoughts followed by a list of web sites and readings that might help.

Even science PhDs can fear being “math people” 

A big part of math anxiety is fear of doing a problem incorrectly, of being seen as stupid, of public ridicule. A wonderful colleague of mine, Dr. James Cornette, spent a sabbatical at the National Institutes of Health, working with medical doctors. When he came back, he started a mathematical biology seminar where biologists come and explain to people from the math department what they’re doing. Jim Cornette is from Texas, a true southern gentleman with charm and tact. He needed all of his charm and tact to get biologists to talk to us. They were deeply reluctant. This seminar led to dozens of publications, literally millions of dollars of grants, and the foundation of an interdisciplinary degree program in bioinformatics. This is the kind of reward that can result from overcoming your math anxiety.

Become a “math person” in no time

Even if you’re not a guy with a Ph.D. in biology, there are rewards for overcoming your math anxiety. In addition to the things I drone on about, like becoming harder to cheat, you get to stop being afraid. Skim the following sites, do your own Google search, get help from a friend. If you think you will never need math, check that assumption. Do you ever get offered a credit card or a line of credit? Do you ever buy an extended warranty? Are you sure that automatically turning these things down (or accepting them) is the right decision? The hard sell on an extended warranty is often a fear-based attempt to rip you off. I’m speaking as a guy who just went with his wife while she bought a new phone. Sure, it is uncomfortable to leave your comfort zone, but its also one of the most reliable ways to grow. Here’s a short, preliminary list of things that might help:

Let us know, in a comment or a tweet, if you’ve found a good site or have a clever idea about dealing with math anxiety. I hope to see you here again,

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada


4 thoughts on “Why You Should NEVER Say “I’m Not a Math Person”

  1. As a “third space” I spend a lot of my time doing improvisational theatre. There is a constant mantra that your mind will automatically try and tell you to say the “safe thing”, which makes for terrible imrpov. Improv is a safe space where failure is accepted and embraced, it’s a place where letting go of your fear is not a risk, the consequences are miniscule. Imrpov has given me valuable skills that I have used in much more nerve-wracking situations like being an emcee of a conference, or remaining calm and confident in an job interview.

    In a way, the same can be said about math. You have to be able to do it in a space where screwing up is embraced as learning, and the consequences are small. Once you develop the confidence there, you move onto situations where “doing the math” is more important, like deciding on a warranty or figuring out whether to rent or buy.

    My biggest issue with how people treat math is not that it is okay to fail, but that there is no other option. They don’t embrace the failure and try again, and never gain the confidence to use it when it really matters.


    1. There is a phrase I dislike: “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” The reason I dislike it is that there are clearly stupid questions and I have an aversion to denying reality. Following William’s remarks, stupid questions are often a gift. If one person asked a stupid question, ten people thought it, and a measured, respectful answer can help all eleven people. I think a much better statment might be: “Mocking a stupid question is the act of a fool.”


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