Study finds math anxiety can equal bad decision-making

"You can’t even pay math-anxious individuals to do hard problems."

chuwy /  amtitus / Getty

Getting something wrong is never a good feeling. And for people with math anxiety, one wrong answer could spiral into a lifetime of avoided opportunities and limited choices.

“It is the vicious cycle of math anxiety,” Kyoung Whan Choe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago, tells Inverse.

Anxiety may drive people to avoid difficult math problems, even if the rewards are high, scientists reported this week. They found that this avoidance may hold people back from accessing immediate and long-term benefits, including lucrative careers in the sciences and engineering.

Their research was published this week in the journal Science Advances.

“One fails in the classroom, that failure induces anxiety, that anxiety induces avoidance. Because they are avoiding math, they don’t practice it, so they fail more,” Choe says. He is co-author on the new study.

"There is a potential to turn the vicious cycle of math anxiety into a virtuous cycle of math success."

Math anxiety is common. Some 30 percent of school children worldwide report feeling anxious or very anxious about math.

To understand if that anxiety affects the decisions people make, the researchers asked study participants to solve math and word problems. Participants could choose between hard and easy problems. A correct answer paid out 4-6 cents for a hard question, while getting an easy question right paid out only two cents.

Christopher Rozek, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University who was also involved in the study, tells Inverse it just makes more sense to go for the tough questions.

“If you are a rational economic decision-maker, you should follow the money,” Rozek says.

That was certainly true for the people without math anxiety. But math-anxious people chose easy math problems, despite the promise of greater reward, the study found.

That held true regardless of their ability to get hard questions correct. The researchers adapted the questions to make sure that each person would get 70 percent of the hard questions right no matter their math ability. In total, the data from 332 participants was used in the study.y.

“We found you can’t even pay math-anxious individuals to do difficult math problems,” Rozek says.

Does math anxiety affect performance?

The finding contradicts a widely-held belief that feeling anxious about math and avoiding math-related problems stems from being bad at math. Research on math anxiety is sparse, old, and often relies on self-reports, which can be biased. Some of the most-commonly cited evidence for the stereotype is almost 30 years old, Rozek says. But while math anxiety is associated with poorer performance on math tests, it isn’t necessarily a sign that you are just bad at math, he says.

“If you take two students who are both good at math, in the top ten percentile for math across the world, the math anxious one is going to do worse at math than the one that isn’t math anxious,” he says.

This anxiety may have a deep, visceral quality.

“One idea is that math is often the first place in school where kids are exposed to right and wrong. And that can be scary,” Sian Beilock, the study’s lead author and professor at Barnard College, tells Inverse.

In previous work, Beilock found that when math anxious people just think about doing math problems, the areas of their brain linked to the feeling of physical pain light up — suggesting the anxiety could lead to a physical, as well as emotional, response.

Another issue could be the toll feeling extremely anxious takes on your cognitive skills, Rozek says. That too could lead to poor decision-making and avoidance behaviors, he says.

Can we beat math anxiety?

Drilling down on how that drives decision-making could ultimately help people not only be more comfortable with math, but also open up new opportunities to them.

Math anxiety does more than stop people from taking a calculus course or going on to pursue a career in STEM, Rozek says. It can affect everyday interactions with math — like leaving a tip in a restaurant. Math anxious people tend to get much more stressed in these situations, even though they have their smartphone’s calculator on hand, he says.

But all is not lost. Reframing their anxiety as positive, rather than negative, could help math anxious people re-engage.

“We think there is a potential to turn the vicious cycle of math anxiety into a virtuous cycle of math success,” Choe says.

"What happens inside the brain when these people decide to avoid math?"

Giving students who were anxious about sitting exams time and guidance on how to rationalize their anxiety beforehand may lead them perform better, Rozek says.

“If you’re anxious, you’re more energetic,” he says. “You have a dry mouth, sweaty palms. You can think about that in a very negative way, like, ‘Oh, I am really nervous, I am going to do poorly.’ Or, you can think about it like, ‘This is my body getting me ready to perform, it is pumping energy to my brain, it is helping me pay attention to things.’”

Another tactic may be to create early positive experiences around math. For example, telling stories featuring math and doing problems based on the story may be helpful, Rozek says. An app Rozek made to help parents do this with first graders led to improvements in the children’s math anxiety by third grade, suggesting at-home experiences with math made a difference, he says.

Math anxiety in the brain

Now that the researchers have what they say is a behavioral signature for math anxiety, the next step is to take find a corresponding brain signature. The team are conducting a new study in which participants take their test while they are in an fMRI scanner. The results will enable scientists to map how math anxiety and the decisions people make correspond to neural activity.

“What we can ask with brain imaging is, ‘What happens inside the brain when these people decide to avoid math?’” Choe says.

“Tying this behavior to neural markers will help the development of effective interventions, because the brain imaging study together with behavior study will teach us what are the neural cognitive mechanisms behind this math anxiety and that avoidance decision-making,” he says.

The hope, says Beilock, is that the work will ultimately help people with math anxiety cope with it and — perhaps — even enjoy it.

Math anxiety—negative feelings toward math—is hypothesized to be associated with the avoidance of math-related activities such as taking math courses and pursuing STEM careers. However, there is little experimental evidence for the math anxiety-avoidance link. Such evidence is important for formulating how to break this relationship. We hypothesize that math avoidance emerges when one perceives the costs of effortful math engagement to outweigh its benefits and that this perception depends on individual differences in math anxiety. To test this hypothesis, we developed an effort-based decision-making task in which participants chose between solving easy, low-reward problems and hard, high-reward problems in both math and nonmath contexts. Higher levels of math anxiety were associated with a tendency to select easier, low-reward problems over harder, high-reward math (but not word) problems. Addressing this robust math anxiety-avoidance link has the potential to increase interest and success in STEM fields.