A forthcoming paper in the journal Management Science looks back at 168 studies investigating financial literacy and financial education. In case you missed it, this is one of the hot topics in money management: The idea is that improving financial literacy through education and other measures will lead to better decision-making. 

The findings? Interventions to improve financial literacy are pretty much useless, and financial literacy itself might not be a very good measure of your money skills in the first place.

Oh dear. 

How bad is it? 
Educational interventions explain only 0.1% of variation in financial behaviors later on. In other words, it doesn't seem to have much of an effect on people's decision-making.

The improvement in financial knowledge after education wasn't much better (0.44%). By comparison, other educational interventions focusing on topics like creative thinking or career counseling are 13 times more powerful -- in other studies, 5.3% of the changes in knowledge in those areas could be linked back to education.

What does it all mean? Financial interventions don't really work. Why? Maybe it's because they're trying to intervene on the wrong thing. 

Maybe financial literacy is a red herring 
The researchers identified another a key problem: financial literacy might not be the topic we should be focusing on. It seems to have a big effect in correlational studies that measure literacy against behaviors, but that could just be because it's associated with other, more important factors. 

It's the equivalent of thinking that ice cream is good for you because it contains calcium. You might like to think it's the ice cream that's responsible, but it's really the milk that's doing the trick. To test this notion, the researchers carry out their own study and throw it through the statistical meat-grinder (ice cream machine?) in order to get down to the truth. 

They find that there are several variables that could be putting the calcium in the ice cream of financial literacy. These include things like numeracy (how comfortable you are with numbers) and how likely you are to plan ahead with your money.

The key point is that once you take these other factors into account, financial literacy itself might not be so important. Which means that all our worrying about the state of financial education could be extremely misguided. Maybe we should be teaching people how to plan ahead instead. 

The limits of education 
This is all to say that statistically analyzing something as complex as people's behavior is not a simple matter, and the role of education in everyday life might not be as straightforward as we think. It's easy to go around haughtily telling people that they really ought know how compound interest works, but in the end it might not really be all that important to their overall success -- or even very relevant. 

Instead, the author's propose another approach: Let's figure out what it is exactly that makes some people better at managing money than others, and focus on those. You have to admit, it makes sense. 

Note: This paper is way bigger and covers a lot more than I discuss here. If you're interested in a little journey down the rabbit hole of how challenging the task of statistical analysis can be, I highly recommend it. 

Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.