It turns out, that politics wrecks your ability to do math.

According to a new psychological study, politics can turn a math genius into a math flunky, rendering them unable to solve relatively easy problems.

Well… that might be overstating it a tad.

What the study — titled “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government” — really shows is that most people suck at math to begin with, but that even those with OK math skills fall prey to “motivated reasoning” once politics and self-identity get involved.

Here’s how the study worked:

1,111 study participants were surveyed on their political views and tested on their mathematical reasoning ability.

Then they were asked to solve a math problem interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study.

But some were told the study was for a skin cream and some were told it was for gun control. And those groups were divided between the data showing a positive or negative effect.

The tables provided in the study looked like these:

Then participants were asked if people using the skin cream (or cities enacting the ban) were more likely to get better or worse.

The results?

First, a depressing amount of low numeracy participants got the answer wrong regardless (I.E., most people suck at math).

Second, among those who were measured as reasonably numerate, they were much more likely to get the answer wrong when the study was:

a) presented to them in terms of gun control, and

b) had results that conflicted with their political beliefs

You can see the results plotted as graphs here

So broadly speaking, you go from the good-at-math folks being about 70% likely to get the answer right for skin cream to being only 20-50% likely to get the right answer for gun control.

And the hotter the hot-button issue, the mo’ bigger the effect, with conservatives showing a smashing 70% difference between getting it wrong when the results went against their beliefs and getting it right when the results reinforced their beliefs.

Tell ‘em what they want to hear and 90% of the “numerate”conservatives will get the math right.

Tell ‘em something against their values and only 20% of ‘em will get the right answer.

As the author of the study put it:

“If the wrong answer is contrary to their ideological positions, we hypothesize that that is going to create the incentive to scrutinize that information and figure out another way to understand it.”

OK. So what does that have to do with your advertising?

When you get people to self-identify with your brand over shared values, you get this whole ‘not-great-at-math’ thing working in your favor.

Even if you’re advertising to educated professionals.

Motivated reasoning works as well on them as anyone else.

Want to be able to charge a fat premium for your services and have people willingly pay it?

Then you’re better off appealing to self identity and values in your ads instead of reason-why advertising focused on USPs.

And that goes double if you’re advertising an Ugly Duckling Business.

Interested in putting this to work for your business? I’d be happy to help.