A large portion of the human population knows the fear of math, that stomach-rumbling anxiety encountered when numbers blur into a jumble as the only correct solution to an equation is demanded. For many these fears may stem from early education that did not prepare them for the increasingly complex math introduced with each successive school year. Now a new study is also showing that our very genes may play a role in math anxiety.
The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, has provided evidence linking genetic factors to significant differences in both the anxiety felt toward math and math performance. Genetics were found to make up to a 40% difference between students in otherwise identical environmental situations.
“Genetic factors may exacerbate or reduce the risk of doing poorly at math,” said Stephen Petrill, a co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Ohio StateUniversity. “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.”
Petrill and his colleagues looked at hundreds of sets of twins, both idential and fraternal enrolled in the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects. The twins were enrolled in the program in kindergarten and followed throughout their primary school educations. Based on math comprehensive exams and math anxiety assessments, the researchers were able to statistically determine how the genetically-identical twins differed from the fraternal pairs while separating out environmental factors.
Though genetic factors are not the majority influence on math skills, the study’s authors believe that math anxiety, related to general anxiety, can set children down an early path to poor math skills, with can further fuel math anxiety.
“You say the word ‘math’ and some people actually cringe,” said Petrill. “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.
“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,”
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