We know that we’re more inclined to perform something well if we actually enjoy whatever it is. But few things in life are as polarizing as math. There’s good news for people who think they suck at math. A team of German researchers studying real-life students — nothing in a laboratory setting — found something else: When it came to math, students who were intelligent did well and students who enjoyed it did even better.

By the same token, the students with the lowest math achievement were those who were not necessarily the least intelligent, but those who had become the most demoralized at the prospect of math itself — experiencing anxiety, anger, boredom, or hopelessness. The research was conducted as part of the Project for the Analysis of Learning and Achievement in Mathematics and published Wednesday in Child Development.

Positive emotion has long been scientifically linked to achievement, but what we haven’t known in the past is exactly how that unfolds over time. Per the abstract:

It is open to question if students emotions impact their learning, if success and failure at learning influence the development of their emotions, if other variables cause the association, or if several of these possibilities are at work. Given the need to acquire knowledge about the antecedents of both students’ achievement and their emotions, this is an issue of considerable theoretical and practical importance. To address this issue, the present investigation went beyond merely observing correlations at a single point in time and attempted to disentangle the causal ordering of these constructs across multiple waves of data collection and a developmental time span of several school years.

They found that the emotional relationship to math is reciprocal — students who do well tend to feel more positive emotions about the subject going forward. Likewise, students who initially do poorly get caught in a downward spiral of negative emotions and poor achievement, a cycle which will be immediately recognizable to anyone who struggled with math early on and simply wrote it off as not being a “math person.”

When it comes to math, emotion functions as both a cause and outcome of achievement. It matters more than innate cognitive ability, and it matters more than prior achievement in the subject. This might also bear out for other academic fields, but for now the researchers stuck to math. So for any teachers reading this, you might be able to make those math-averse people into math people after all.

You just might have to make it more fun.

Photos via Flickr / MyTudut

Kastalia grew up in Littleton, Colorado, and has a journalism degree from the University of Southern California. She spent the past year and a half backpacking around the world and recently moved to New York. Her RTs = unwavering personal convictions.

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