During family dinner, we have a tradition. Everyone has to summarize their day by describing three good events and, if necessary, one bad event. When my turn arrived at a recent dinner, I turned to my two eldest children and told them that my bad event was discovering that their math grades should have been higher.
I explained that I had just read a paper that claimed that people who enjoyed and were good at systemizing were also good at math. According to the paper, this was most strongly seen in people on the autism spectrum. “Hence, spawn-o-mine, I expect things to improve by at least one grade point.”
The paper in questing, entitled “Systemisers are better at maths,” represents the first attempt to try to test an old hypothesis and extend it to the general population. The hypothesis is that our brain uses two modules to try to make sense of the world. One systemizes: it looks for patterns and order and uses them to explain and predict the world. The second system is empathetic: it tries to predict and understand the world by walking in its shoes. One characteristic of autism spectrum disorder is the desire for order and patterns. This is often misinterpreted by saying that people on the spectrum lack empathy. This is simply wrong.
A love of patterns
It’s true, though, that the desire for order and patterns is higher in people on the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorder also occurs at three to seven times the average among mathematicians and their close relations. This is an intriguing correlation because mathematics can roughly be described as the search for patterns.
If the two are really linked, it should also be true in the general population. That’s what Paolo Bressan wanted to test: does being a systemizer make you a better mathematician?
Bressan grabbed a bunch of students studying psychology, engineering, biology, and a couple of a humanities students. This was truly a WEIRD group, and it’s not clear how much that affected the results.
He subjected them to a battery of tests. A math ability test, a non-math intelligence test, and a test that quantified how much each person liked to systemize information. Out came a set of startling and not-so-startling correlations. First, math and systemization were strongly correlated with study choice: engineers and physicists love to systemize, while psychology students do not. The math scores followed the same trend. However, there was no correlation between non-mathematical intelligence and study course.
Replicating other results, Bressan showed that over the whole population, women scored lower in the math aptitude test. But if you control for systemization, that difference disappears. In other words, the difference in math scores was not due to sex, but rather due to the individual pleasure in systemizing.
Bressan also compared self assessment to systemization. She concluded that half the variation in an individual’s self assessment of their math abilities could be explained by just their study choice and their systemizations score. Which, I guess, shows that most students make reasonable study choices.
The study therefore supports the original hypothesis: we all love systemization to a different degree. And that love of systemization shines through when it comes to solving math problems.
It’s all statistics
Of course, these results are statistical in nature. The study had about 150 participants, so it’s not that large. But the effect seems to be cery strong. Roughly speaking, the chance that the observed difference was due to pure chance was calculated to be about one in 10,000.
Yet despite the strength of the statistics, we should be wary. Bressan discusses several other studies that tried to observe the same effect and found nothing.
What the study does not do is tell us why. For instance, the data tells us that students who enjoy systemizing are good at math. But it doesn’t say whether the students who loathe systemizing were not motivated to improve their math skills. From a teaching perspective, this is the actually the critical point: is a skill impossible for a student to learn for some reason? Or are they simply uninterested in learning the skill?
If the study results withstand scrutiny, Bressan says they suggest another way to turn students on to math. Children learn from their surroundings. A love of order and pattern sometimes occurs naturally, but it can also emerge from play. That early training may encourage a stronger enjoyment of math later in life.
Scientific Reports, 2018, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-30013-8