Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

Math Skills: Nature or Nurture?

More than genetics themselves, our belief in genetics affects math performance.

source: Wikimedia Commons (author: Melchoir)
This week, the media picked up on a recently published article in Developmental Science by researchers at Johns Hopkins (Libertus, Fiegneson, and Halbreda, 2011) suggesting that children as young as three with the ability to quickly differentiate smaller vs. bigger amounts-- a "math sense" of sorts-- also performed better in a more formal math task. The New York Times proclaims "in future math whizzes, signs of 'number sense.'" And in this column, Chris Matyszczyk of CNET news concludes that this research shows that math skills "might entirely be handed down by one's forefathers"-in other words, genetically based.

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The idea that individual differences in young children point to genetic differences is appealing, and very popular in our culture. It makes for a fast, tidy explanation: you are who you are because of your genes, and there is nothing you can do about it. This kind of explanation can certainly help us feel better when we experience difficulty.

But what I want to concentrate on in this blog is not whether there is, in fact, a genetic component to math ability. The scientific bottom line is that we don't know. Rather, I want to concentrate on what we do know: namely, that if you believe that math abilities are fixed, you may be compromising your and your children's potential in math.

This is shown clearly in an experimental intervention conducted by researchers at Columbia and Stanford (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck, 2007). In that study, the researchers examined the math performance of a group of students in seventh grade. For some of the students, the researchers applied an incremental theory intervention, in which students were taught that their math skills could grow through effort and learning. Students in the intervention group were taught that the brain, like a muscle at work, is strengthened through effort, and that intelligence can be nurtured and developed. Students in a control group, by contrast, also received enriching activities (e..g, instruction in study skills, additional academic activities) but did not receive any information about the malleability of their intelligence. 

The results of the intervention were striking. By the end of the intervention, the control group's mathematics grades had declined, whereas this decline was reversed among students in the incremental theory condition. In other words, the students' belief that they could grow and develop their intelligence-that it is not a fixed, inborn entity-helped them, in fact, achieve just this.

What can account for these findings? A key lies in Matyszczyk's blog. He writes, "Perhaps it would be a relief to those who struggle with math (and with tolerating those who are wonderful at it) to know that there is nothing they can do about it." Implicit in this quote is another detrimental (yet widespread) belief:  struggling or having to work hard at something must mean that you are simply not good at it. This is a logical conclusion, of course, if you believe that you either "got it" or you don't. But it is also not the only way to interpret what it means to put effort into things.

When one believes that intelligence is malleable, it more naturally follows that effort activates intelligence. In this view, struggles are not roadblocks but the very stepping stones on which skill and intelligence are built. When you have an incremental theory that your intelligence can change, finding something difficult becomes a challenge, rather than a threat.

Clearly lot of factors are involved in math achievement, some of which are undoubtedly genetic. Yet one of the wonderful things about the human condition is that so much of our well-being depends on our psychology (just think of the incredible effects, for example, of placebos in medical settings). If you care about your child's math achievement, don't hurry out to see if you can somehow get your hands on the diagnostic assessment tool of your child's "math sense." Chances are you'll do more good to your child by encouraging your child to reconstrue difficulty not as something that tells them about their limitations, but as something that is growing their intelligence. Not all of us can be math geniuses, but we don't have to be prodigies to excel in math -- or any other domain.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.

 

 

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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