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Why Math Evokes Negative Reactions

How math anxiety may impair math ability—in school as well as in adult life.

Key points

  • Feeling anxious about math is surprisingly common.
  • Math anxiety impairs children's ability to learn mathematics.
  • Math anxiety may interfere with one's ability to learn necessary skills and concepts related to one's own finances.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Consider the following scenario: You are at a restaurant with a group of friends, and after a great dinner with good conversation, someone calls in the check. You all decide that you should split the check evenly, and suddenly your friend asks you to mentally calculate—in front of the group—what $372 is split six ways, and with a 15 percent gratuity added.

In this situation, what would your immediate reaction be? If you are like many people, you would perhaps experience a jolt of anxiety as you imagine your mental calculation ability being put to the test in front of your friends. If the idea of doing math in similar situations evokes strong aversive reactions, chances are that you demonstrate what is called “math anxiety (MA).” Many people have not heard of the phenomenon before, even though it seemingly resonates with a lot of people and is surprisingly common. The prevalence of math anxiety is estimated to include approximately 15 percent of the general population.

A common definition of MA was provided by Richardson and Suinn (1972). MA involves ‘‘feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.” In accordance with that definition, anxious feelings may arise in ordinary life situations, such as in the restaurant scenario above.

But MA likely takes its most salient and expressive form in educational settings, when children learn mathematics throughout grade school. Learning mathematics is notoriously hard and requires effortful commitment to fully master, and children are not always ecstatic at the prospect of rolling up their sleeves and grinding their way to mathematical enlightenment. It is difficult to learn math, but it is also one of the most sought-after skills in modern society, where it helps one flourish both economically, personally, and health-wise. This naturally inflicts immense psychological pressure on children and parents alike, even if a career in a STEM field is not the immediate ambition of the child. Therefore, it is perhaps not too surprising that MA starts to develop early in school, around second or third grade. Some researchers have even found early signs of MA in kindergarteners due to pressure from parents to perform and stay ahead of the curve.

Why should we care about MA? Is it not simply a reflection of whether or not someone likes math? If we look back at the definition of MA above, it says that MA "interferes with manipulation of numbers and solving of mathematical problems.” This suggests that MA not only is a product of poor experiences with math or that someone is innumerate, but that MA in itself can influence the ability to carry out mental calculations, thus interfering with math performance.

Previous research has found that MA and mathematical abilities are negatively correlated, but the correlations are neither strong (about r = -.30) nor perfectly linear. Children who struggle with math often show high levels of MA, but at the other end of the spectrum, we also find children who excel at math but still avoid it as much as possible due to their negative emotions associated with it. So, what are the mechanisms by which MA influences learning mathematics exactly?

Several hypotheses have been proposed, and mounting research points to a combination of more than one pathway. One pathway is where one must do some mental computation. If one suffers from MA, the negative feelings lead to ruminations and feelings of worry that take up precious cognitive resources in working memory. So, instead of having ample cognitive space available in the mental workbench that is working memory, children may become overly self-conscious and ruminate about a prospective failure and feel dread about the present task.

Another straightforward pathway is through simple avoidance as a coping mechanism, such as finding excuses not to do one’s homework or to disturb and talk to one’s classmate instead. This is in line with how humans respond to anxiety more generally. In fact, researchers have used neuroimaging (fMRI) and found that children with MA show increased activity in the right amygdala as a response to math tasks, a similar pattern to other anxieties. This has led some researchers to argue that MA should be regarded as a genuine phobia. Although that notion is debatable, the negative feelings experienced by these children—and adults—are not. Avoidance as a coping mechanism may have more long-term downstream effects, such as avoiding courses and careers that require some affinity and skill in mathematics. This also has potential ramifications for how well individuals understand and maintain their private finances. In fact, research from our lab suggests that MA is linked to how well people understand basic economic concepts, such as how interest rates work and what stocks are, even when controlling for their mathematical ability.

What causes math anxiety?

Empirical evidence has found at least two culprits: teachers and parents. Teachers who themselves have a complicated relationship with mathematics seem to implicitly transfer their negative attitudes to their students, unfortunately. The same goes for parents, who may not cope well with their apparent inability to help their children with their homework as math content becomes increasingly more difficult as the children grow older. This may negatively affect their children’s inclination to open the books in the presence of their parents, and result in a negative attitude being transmitted to the children.

Much is yet to be discovered about MA, including how to effectively prevent and mitigate it. However, what is certainly clear is that it is an issue to take seriously, irrespective of whether you are a teacher, a parent, or just someone who appreciates knowing why splitting a check with your friends feels mortifying sometimes.

References

Richardson, F.C., & Suinn, R.M. The Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale: Psychometric data. J Couns Psychol. 1972; 19(6), 551-554.

Aschraft, M.H., & Moore, A.M. Mathematics Anxiety and the Affective Drop in Performance. J Psychoeduc Assess. 2009; 27(3), 197-205.

Skagerlund, K., Östergren, R., Västfjäll, D., & Träff, U. (2019). How does mathematics anxiety impair mathematical abilities? Investigating the link between math anxiety, working memory, and number processsing. PLoS ONE, 14(1), e0211283

Skagerlund, K., Lind, T., Strömbäck, C., Tinghög, G., & Västfjäll, D. (2018). Financial literacy and the role of numeracy - How individuals' attitude and affinity with numbers influence financial literacy. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 74, 18-25

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