Who’s afraid of math? Study finds some genetic factors


March 18, 2014
Brain & Behavior, Physics & Mathematics

A new study of math anxiety shows how some people may be at greater risk to fear math not only because of negative experiences, but also because of genetic risks related to both general anxiety and math skills.

The study, which examined how fraternal and identical twins differ on measures of math anxiety, provides a revised view on why some children – and adults – may develop a fear of math that makes it more difficult for them to solve math problems and succeed in school.

“We found that math anxiety taps into genetic predispositions in two ways: people’s cognitive performance on math and their tendency toward anxiety,” said Zhe Wang, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University.

The results don’t mean that math anxiety can be blamed solely or even mostly on genetic factors, the researchers emphasized. In this study, genetic factors explained about 40 percent of the individual differences in math anxiety. Much of the rest was explained by the different environments — in the school, in the home and elsewhere — that the twins experienced.

But the findings do suggest that we can’t say that classroom quality, aspects of the home, or other environmental factors are the only reasons why people differ in how they experience math

“Genetic factors may exacerbate or reduce the risk of doing poorly at math,” said Stephen Petrill, professor of psychology at Ohio State, and the principal investigator of the study.

“If you have these genetic risk factors for math anxiety and then you have negative experiences in math classes, it may make learning that much harder. It is something we need to account for when we’re considering interventions for those who need help in math.”

The study appears online in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and will be published in a future print edition.

The study included 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins who participated in the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects, an ongoing long-term study of twins in Ohio.

Children entered the project in kindergarten or first grade and were assessed in up to eight home visits. This study included data from the last two home visits, when the twins were between about 9 and 15 years old.

All of the twins completed assessments of math anxiety, general anxiety, math problem solving and reading comprehension. The researchers used statistical tools to see how these various measures of anxiety and math and reading ability were related between fraternal twins and between identical twins. That allowed them to make conclusions about how differences in math anxiety could be explained by genetic factors and how much could be explained by differences in the environments the twins encountered at home, at school and elsewhere.

Petrill said it is important to study anxiety as it applies to how well children learn math.

“You say the word ‘math’ and some people actually cringe,” he said. “It is not like learning how to read, in which people don’t normally have any general anxiety unless they have some kind of difficulty.”

And anxiety can have a profound effect on learning, Wang added. Fear can make it difficult for people to further develop even the math skills that they already have.

“If you’re anxious, it is often harder to solve problems. The anxiety response actually inhibits some people’s ability. We have to help children learn to regulate their emotions so that the anxiety doesn’t keep them from achieving their best in math,” Wang said.

But one issue was that, before this study, researchers didn’t have a clear idea of how important the genetic component of math anxiety is in children and how it originates: Is it because of a lack of actual math skills — such as problem solving and ability to do calculations — or is it related to a person’s predisposition to anxiety?

“We found here that it is both: Math anxiety is related to both the cognitive side and the affective side of general anxiety,” Petrill said.

This may result in a downward spiraling process in which these genetic risks to anxiety and poor math performance work with environmental influences to lead to math anxiety. This may leads to further problems in math performance, which exacerbates the math anxiety symptoms.

Petrill said interventions to help people suffering from math anxiety may have to account for both genetic and environmental factors.

He said his research group is currently using EEGs to measure real-time brain activity associated with the anxiety responses during math and non-math problem solving.

“If we can get a better idea of what provokes this anxiety response, we may be able to develop a better intervention for those with math anxiety,” he said.



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8 Responses to Who’s afraid of math? Study finds some genetic factors

  1. u14036429 May 4, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    There are usually only two responses towards math. People either like math or dislike math

    I dislike math with a vegans but other members of my family seem to enjoy math a lot. This blog may shed some light on the subject on why I do not like math and my family members do.

    There are also other factors to doing well in math. Probably the most important factor is how hard you work and the amount of effort you put into math. Having the genes to be able to excel in math and not to work hard will be the same as not having the genes at all

    A person without the ability to do well in math can probably excel in math if that person has the right attitude towards learning, works hard and is in the right learning aria

    So not having the genes for finding math easy is no excuse to do bad in math it only requires more effort

  2. u14054567 May 3, 2014 at 4:21 am #

    When it comes to Math, there are usually two distinct attitudes towards it. One is a love for the numbers and the other an absolute fear of it.

    I am lucky enough to not be anxious toward Math at all. I have however always wondered why some of my friend feel quite the opposite. I found this post to be very interesting as it can possibly provide an explanation for the reason why some people just can’t seem to master this subject.

    It is however very important to also consider the effort a person put into the development of their Math skills. After all, you can’t blame your genes for your poor Math performance if you didn’t put in the necessary practise.

    Even if someone didn’t inherit the ability to naturally excel at math, hard work and a positive learning environment can provide you with all the tools you need to overcome Math problems and Math-related anxiety.

    Although certain genes may cause you to find Math more difficult than others do, it is important not to use it as an excuse, but rather search for solutions to overcome this problem.

    Is there perhaps any research that suggests possible solutions for reducing anxiety in general ?

  3. u14054567 May 3, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    When it comes to Math, there are usually two distinct attitudes towards it. One is a love for the numbers and the other an absolute fear of it.

    I am lucky enough to not be anxious toward Math at all. I have however always wondered why some of my friend feel quite the opposite. I found this post to be very interesting as it can possibly provide an explanation for the reason why some people just can’t seem to master this subject.

    It is however very important to also consider the effort a person put into the development of their Math skills. After all, you can’t blame your genes for your poor Math performance if you didn’t put in the necessary practise.

    Even if someone didn’t inherit the ability to naturally excel at Math, hard work and a positive learning environment can provide you with all the tools you need to overcome Math problems and Math-related anxiety.

    Although certain genes may cause you to find Math more difficult than other people do, it is important not to use it as an excuse. Rather search for solutions to try and overcome this problem.

  4. Tshiamo Mthembu 14031010 May 2, 2014 at 2:29 am #

    Well, I’m one of those people who are afraid of math and the fact that my dad is a mathematician does not help the cause. I have an anxiety problem naturally where i get a panic attack before a test but this all accelerates when its math. Its become worse to a point that I’ve developed a bad attitude towards math.

    I’ve realized that with most people the problem is not that they can’t do math or that they don’t understand the math but rather they fear the stigma that comes with doing math as a results they don’t do well. Most people don’t understand that anxiety is the reason why some people do badly in math and this only makes the situation worse.

  5. Lauren Snow (u14009189) May 1, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    I am currently studying a BSc in Actuarial and Financial Mathematics and whenever I tell someone this they either do not know what I am talking about or they flinch at the thought of working with numbers and performing relatively complex mathematical calculations. Maths has developed a negative stigmatism over time and many people hate it either purely or partly based on fear, anxiety, genetics and negative experiences, as discussed in the article.

    It was found that children can develop a type of anxiety or fear to maths and, from personal experience, I have noticed that when I am stressed or anxious I do not perform as well as I normally do while tackling math problems. I agree that maths, logical and cognitive thinking can be genetic to some degree; however, that does not mean that a certain person will never be able to perform well when faced with numerical problems. I have always known that part of my mathematical skill stems from genetics, but I have also always been exposed to numbers in a positive manner. Many of my maths teachers were brilliant and did not only teach me how to solve equations, but to think dynamically and challenge my mind. In my opinion this type of learning and encouragement is what enabled me to continue to perform well in maths.

    There are an extensive amount of factors that contribute to how people perceive things, and once we can work out how this happens as well as how to use effective methods to combat negative perceptions; we will be able to drastically alter our development as a society at whole.

  6. Sian Grobler 14011744 May 1, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    The hatred for mathematics could be inherited? Personally I think that we should then stop it at the source! Parents, would you step this way please…

    As an aspiring mathematician I have to say, Maths – is a beautiful thing. A quote I once read said that mathematics is the hand writing of god*, and I couldn’t agree more. But it does trouble me when I hear of so many people complaining about it – and how they detest its very existence, and at least now I have a better understanding why.
    I recently did a little reading up on genetics and found that things like anxiety, and especially how a person handles it and their response to it it inherited. But surely there should be a way that we could then stop this dreadful gene from controlling someone’s response to maths? Personally I do hope so. Maths should not be something that invokes fear, and if there is a way to stop it – we should!

    *Author unknown,

  7. 14116121 April 29, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    I am an absolute mathematics lover. I would much rather spend my whole day doing math than anything else. It interests me to know how some people fear math. I have heard the excuse “It’s not in my genes, I’m better at English than Mathematics,” many times but did not believe that genetics played a role in one’s mathematical ability.

    As a child you are taught many skill including numerical skills. If numeracy skills are properly implemented surely the child should have a better understanding of mathematics later on in his/her life? Mathematical understanding is not a skill one acquires overnight but rather hours and hours of practical dedication.

    On one hand I agree that anxiety could affect a child’s performance in mathematics but on the other hand I do not agree that genetic predisposition plays a role. My high school Mathematics teacher always told us that if we practised hard enough, the work would never be difficult. Mathematical anxiety develops due to lack of practise over the years since childhood.

    However, as Petrill said, “If we can get a better idea of what provokes this anxiety response, we may be able to develop a better intervention for those with math anxiety,” if we are able to further investigate math anxiety and find a way to “cure” it, people will begin to excel more in subjects such as Mathematics, Physics and chemistry at school and later in university.

  8. H R REDDY March 18, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    If there is any link with genes will there be any connection with the races among the human beings?

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