See, Hear, Feel

EP84: Dr. Ellen Peters on emotion and numeracy in decision making

October 18, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD / Ellen Peters, PhD Season 1 Episode 84
See, Hear, Feel
EP84: Dr. Ellen Peters on emotion and numeracy in decision making
Show Notes Transcript

I loved talking to Ellen because her research seems to so nicely cover both System 1 and System 2 thinking - how small feelings should influence us and at the same time how actual numbers and thinking about numbers should also influence us. Dr. Ellen Peters, PhD is the Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor and Director, Center for Science Communication Research, at the University of Oregon. Dr. Peters is an academic expert in decision making and the science of communication. She researches how people judge and decide and how communication can improve healthcare decisions. She has researched how emotions and number abilities link to human judgment and decision making. She is interested in how numeracy (number ability) can improve decision making. She is the author of Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers.

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today I am very honored to be with Dr. Ellen Peters. Dr. Ellen Peters, PhD is the Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor and Director, Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon. Dr. Peters is an academic expert in decision making and the science of communication. She researches how people judge and decide and how communication can improve healthcare decisions. She has researched how emotions and number abilities link to human judgment and decision making. She is interested in how numeracy, another term for it is number ability, can improve decision making. She's the author of a book titled Innumeracy in the Wild: Misunderstanding and Misusing Numbers. Welcome to Ellen. 

[00:00:48] Ellen Peters: Thank you. It's nice to be here, Christine. 

[00:00:50] Christine Ko: Thank you for spending time with me. Would you first share a personal anecdote that can humanize you and put you in a normal human context?

[00:01:00] Ellen Peters: It is hard to do that with professors, isn't it? I thought I'd tell a brief story about how I came to be doing what I'm doing. I grew up with three brothers, and so I was brought up as a boy cause my parents, there's too many of us to differentiate between us. I was very into sports, I was very into math and science as a kid, but I also absolutely loved to read. I would climb 30 feet up into a tree, and I'd read up there because it was beautiful, a lovely place to read a book. When I went to start college, I had this huge conflict choosing between being an English major or an engineer. I couldn't decide which one to be because I liked both of them. So I was originally an engineer. And then, various things happened in life, and I ended up being a decision psychologist. And maybe because there are these two different sides of me, there are two different strands to what I do for a living. I study how emotions influence decisions, because emotions are so cool, and they're what kind of drive us in life. But then I also study how our math abilities make a difference in a different way to help us make decisions. And so, for me, it brings together the two sides of me. 

[00:02:01] Christine Ko: That's awesome. When you talked about emotions and math, it also relates to dual process theory and metacognition because you can think of maybe emotions as more like the System 1 or Type 1 processing, and math, at least complicated math, to be more like the logical, analytical system, Type 2 processing. That's really cool. How would you describe how emotions link to judgment and decision making? 

[00:02:25] Ellen Peters: First, emotions get a bad rap. We often think about emotions as overriding our decisions. We're overwhelmed by our emotions. We strike out in anger, we run away in fear or get paralyzed by fear. And, there are moments when that happens. Each of us can probably think of moments in our lives when that happened. But they're moments, they're tiny little blips in time.

[00:02:47] The way that I think emotions usually work, and what the data say, are that emotions guide us in our lives. They act as beacons in a world that's really complex and murky. Sometimes we don't know exactly where we should be going. We can't quite see it. Emotions acts as a beacon of light, telling us to go in this direction or to move away from that direction. If you're walking down a dark alley, your emotions are going to inform you. They're going to say, maybe you shouldn't be here. Turn around and go back to where there are people and you know that you're more safe. And so our emotions really act as kind of our GPS system, in a sense, telling us which way to go when it's not clear otherwise. 

[00:03:26] Christine Ko: Do you think, though, that since emotions do get a bad rap, that you can not be good at listening to your own emotions? 

[00:03:34] Ellen Peters: That's such an interesting question. I don't think we know enough about that. First of all, you're right, because I know people in life where they just don't seem to have that same guide. I can imagine that part of it is that they either didn't develop that ability to have those feelings, or they're just not listening to them. I don't know if you remember this as a kid, but I remember as a kid suddenly realizing, Oh, wait, there is this kind of little voice inside me telling me, maybe this one is better.

[00:04:02] And I remember realizing that as a kid and thinking, Oh, okay, I can decide that way. And going out of my way to do that, not all the time, but when it seemed to make sense. 

[00:04:12] Christine Ko: I don't know if it's because also we as human beings tend to remember the negative more than the positive, but maybe that's why we link emotion with poor decisions, because like you'll say, Oh, I thought I loved someone, and then I was just wrong, versus there's probably a lot more positive stories of what love induce someone to do than just that you were wrong. 

[00:04:35] Ellen Peters: Yeah, and there's also two different ways to think about emotions. One is more of what you're talking about, where you're talking about these like big emotions. You're talking about anger, you're talking about love, these things that are very big in our lives. And I think you're right that those emotions really do loom large in our lives. What I'm talking about when it comes to decision making is much smaller. We're talking about like faint whispers of emotion, feeling a little better about this option and a little worse about making that choice instead. There's like a level of magnitude difference between them.

[00:05:07] Christine Ko: Yeah. Okay. So it's like logarithmic. 

[00:05:11] Ellen Peters: Yeah. 

[00:05:12] Christine Ko: Okay. So when you mentioned before that you would hear a small voice inside and say, this is a little better. Have you been training that? 

[00:05:22] Ellen Peters: No, I don't. And just to be clear, it's not actually a small voice that I'm hearing. It's more a feeling of this is better than that. This is when I was a kid and realizing that I didn't always have to be able to explain it out exactly right to make a good decision. Sometimes I could go with my gut. I could go with my intuition. I could go with this one. I don't know exactly that it's the right thing to do, but it's okay to make either choice. And this one feels better. I just remember realizing that as a kid. 

[00:05:51] Christine Ko: This is part of the reason why I wanted to talk to you as an expert in decision making because I encounter this in my work as a physician. When my colleagues and I are talking about making a diagnosis at the microscope, we do talk about our gut, our instinct. One of my colleagues will say, in my heart of hearts, I just don't think it's anything bad. Sometimes we don't really know how to fully express why. But we can be wrong. It becomes hard. 

[00:06:21] Ellen Peters: Some decisions just are hard, and it's difficult to tell. What you're talking about in terms of, in my heart of hearts, bringing it back to more of the good side, that kind of feeling is based on a whole heck of a lot of experience. And it's not just that you're guessing, it's that you have years of experience of seeing something, making a decision, getting feedback about whether you're right or wrong, making another similar decision. It's that kind of world of experience that ends up getting wrapped up into these gut feelings. That doesn't mean that it's always going to be exactly right, because there are a lot of close calls out there. And then, it's not that you have to stop there with the feeling. You can also bring in that, that deliberative, okay, but let's imagine it's not this diagnosis, but the diagnosis is not something particularly serious. On the other hand, if it's something very serious, you can bring your thinking mind on and say, yeah, but this is really serious and being wrong is a bad thing. I'm going to be conservative on this. So even with that same gut feeling, it's not that your System 1 self, your experiential self, lives on its own. It lives in conjunction with our ability to bring more thought to bear, from our System 2 selves. 

[00:07:30] Christine Ko: I love that. You might still make the wrong decision and then, if you get feedback later that it was the wrong decision, you learn from that and then that gets incorporated into your body of experience, and you'll probably make a different call, something like it comes up again. Can you touch on how number abilities affect human judgment and decision making? 

[00:07:49] Ellen Peters: In the United States, there are these huge differences in people's math abilities. Some people are very good at math, some people are very bad at math. But in the US, about one third of the US adult population is considered functionally innumerate. They function so, so poorly with numbers, and with the kind of numbers that are needed to do personal finances and health, they actually can't make effective decisions in those kinds of domains. Number abilities do affect human judgment and decision making.

[00:08:16] I had a very good friend, Ruth, an older woman. We were doing some some work for Medicare, and I was really young at the time, maybe 28 or something. I needed someone to talk to who had made the kinds of choices that Medicare was asking us to study. And so I asked her if she would come in and help me. And I had devised a bunch of experiments that I thought were going to show Medicare something I thought they needed to know. I wanted someone to look at it who'd actually made these choices. Ruth was so nice. She came into my lab to do these experiments. And I left her with my big pile of papers that were the studies. And I went to the other side of the room and I was dealing with something else. And then I realized that this very talkative woman had said nothing for five minutes. And it was really weird because it was just like, not Ruth. And I looked over and she was crying, Christine. I had no idea what was going on, but I went over and I sat down next to her. I thought something had happened in her life, and she just hadn't told me coming in, and that wasn't it. It was that the tasks that I had given her were all numbers, and she was really math anxious. And she said, I'm not a numbers person, and, this is just overwhelming, and it was one of those stories where I'm like, ah numbers matter a lot. They matter in making these choices around like health insurance kinds of things, and they matter a lot to the individual person.

[00:09:34] And to me, that was a reflection both of the importance of numbers to decision making in a really practical, pragmatic way, but also the importance of not making it just up to the individual, that it's up to the system to make this better for people. It's not just about the people having to hike up their boots or whatever the expression is and, just get better at this, but it's a systemic problem, and places like Medicare and physicians for that matter need to understand how to present numeric information to people who might not do it well, who might be afraid of it, but they nonetheless need to understand it. They need to be able to use the numbers well, because those kind of math abilities are linked to their ability to make good decisions around health, and ultimately it's linked with their health outcomes. 

[00:10:21] Christine Ko: Do you have a recommendation on how to improve number abilities, especially if 30 percent of Americans are innumerate? 

[00:10:30] Ellen Peters: There's a variety of different ways. Some of it puts the emphasis and the responsibility on the individual person, which I have mixed feelings about the fairness of that. Some of it puts the onus more on our systems of government of healthcare, those kinds of things. I can talk a little bit about both. And I'll start with a little bit system and individual. Our system needs to get better at math education and having math education more equally distributed across the United States. And so this is more of a system level thing that just makes a huge difference on individual people, starting as children, but then it, that goes out across the adult lifespan because teaching math is not just about STEM. It has the biggest bang for the buck in preschool, in elementary school, it's the little ones. We want to give them that foundation of math skills that they can carry across their life. 

[00:11:18] Teaching math is about every day, the things we do in life because numbers come up so much, including in health. In terms of adults, there are some things you can do. One of the important ones is to actually have an accurate idea of who you are as a math person. Because there are people who are really high in math skills, but they're really low in confidence, and they don't realize they're good at math. They don't use the math skills that they have. My friend Ruth was actually very much like that. Her math skills actually weren't bad. They're pretty good. But she didn't realize it and because of that, she'd get overwhelmed, and she wouldn't use the skills that she had. But then there are people who are overconfident, too. So there are people who aren't that good at math who think they are, and they actually do quite poorly when it comes to everyday tasks because they think they can do it.

[00:12:00] They go ahead and do it. They make mistakes. They don't realize it. They don't ask for help. They don't accept help. And so they also can end up really floundering when it comes to health kinds of situations. So that's the first thing. Know who you are. And then, you can practice your math. You don't have to do complicated math. Do a little arithmetic and just practice without seeing the answer and then get feedback so that you can learn.

[00:12:22] It goes back to what we were talking about before around that experiential wisdom that comes with learning, you have to guess first and then see if you're right or wrong. We have to have that process in order to be able to really learn. And that is true with math too.

[00:12:37] But it takes time. We've done, we've done a couple of studies and we can show some effects with adults, but they're pretty small effects. Unless you put a lot of time into it, it's hard to impact your math ability. 

[00:12:48] Christine Ko: You've given some advice on how to improve number ability. Do you have any advice on how to improve using emotions or feelings in decision making? 

[00:13:00] Ellen Peters: Oh, gosh, that one I don't have as much for, actually. Other than, I guess my only advice is to think about your own life and the individual emotional experiences that you're having, and really just think deliberately about, is this emotion going to help me in the moment or is it not? If emotion's overwhelming your ability to do something that's in your best interest, you may want to rein it back. We have lots of emotional control capacity available. Recognize when emotions they're gonna help you and when they might hurt you and modulate those emotional reactions.

[00:13:32] The other piece of advice I'd have is that we also have these little faint whispers of emotion in all of our decisions. If we have some kind of experience in a decision and lots of the decisions we make, we have some experience in that domain. Those little faint whispers of emotion are your it's your wisdom. It's your wisdom that you've developed from past experience, and learning to listen to that it can actually be quite helpful. 

[00:13:55] Christine Ko: Do you have any final thoughts? 

[00:13:57] Ellen Peters: It is individual people who have to make all of those decisions about health and wealth, all of those different kinds of things. A lot of those decisions do ultimately relate to the numbers that are present in our lives, the emotions that are present in our lives. Be aware of those influences. Start to think about how can you use, if you think about numbers and emotions as sources of information, how can you use them better in order to live a better life that you are happier with. 

[00:14:24] Christine Ko: Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. 

[00:14:26] Ellen Peters: You're welcome. It was really nice chatting with you, Christine.