This is from a New York Times Magazine piece about America’s innumeracy problem:
One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.
Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “?,” led them astray.
Are Americans really innumerate compared to other countries? Perhaps: Author Elizabeth Green says that American adults did pretty poorly in a 2012 international test of numeracy. The rest of her piece is all about how we could teach math better if we really put our minds to it, but unfortunately, after inventing all the best methods for teaching math we gave up, leaving it to the Japanese to perfect them. I don’t know whether or not this is a fair summary of the current state of play in math ed.
Still, the A&W anecdote was too good to check, and too good not to pass along. If it’s not true, it should be.
UPDATE: Elizabeth Green tweets that her source for this anecdote is Threshold Resistance by Alfred Taubman, who owned A&W in the 80s. Here’s the relevant passage, after Taubman has called in Yankelovich, Skelly and White to figure out what was wrong with their burger:
Well, it turned out that customers preferred the taste of our fresh beef over traditional fast-food hockey pucks. Hands down, we had a better product. But there was a serious problem. More than half of the participants in the Yankelovich focus groups questioned the price of our burger. “Why,” they asked, “should we pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as we do for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s? You’re overcharging us.” Honestly. People thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound. After all, three is less than four!
So there you go.