Math Anxiety Is Linked to Genetics, Study Finds

By Liana Loewus — April 09, 2014 1 min read
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Math anxiety can be explained, at least in part, by genetic factors, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

There’s been plenty of buzz on the topic of math anxiety over the last few years. Studies have shown it can lead to decreased working memory, low performance, and avoidance of math pursuits. Much of the research on math anxiety’s causes has focused on early exposure to negative math experiences.

However, the new study looks at how influential genetics are in determining whether students develop math anxiety. The researchers followed 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins over about a seven-year period, starting when the students were in kindergarten or 1st grade. The 11 authors, from several higher education institutions including The Ohio State University, measured students’ math anxiety, general anxiety, math problem-solving skills, and reading comprehension through a battery of assessments.

According to the findings, genetic factors related to general anxiety and math cognition accounted for 40 percent of the variance in math anxiety. The other 60 percent of the variance was explained by environmental factors specific to the child. Family-level environmental factors, they found, were not a significant indicator.

The researchers write that math anxiety “may arise from negative environmental experiences with mathematics. However, our findings also suggested that genetic risks underlying poor math ability and general anxiety may already predispose children to the development of MA.” They go on to warn of a “dynamic spiraling process” in which the genetic and environmental influences lead to impairment in math performance, “and in turn, the negative experiences with mathematics may then exacerbate MA symptoms.”

I’ll be interested in learning more about math anxiety—and plenty of other issues associated with math instruction—as I head to New Orleans tomorrow for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ annual conference. Follow me on Twitter @LianaHeitin for updates on what I’m learning.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.