The Origins of Math Anxiety

Fear of addition, subtraction, and the numerical world starts young—especially for girls.

Fear of math is a real thing. I thought I was the only neurotic freak who struggled with fractions in third grade, avoided taking calculus in high school, and dropped out of physics for non-science majors in college. But it turns out an emotional reaction to all things numeric now has an official label: math anxiety.

Mark Ashcraft heads the psychology department at the University of Las Vegas and has made his name researching math anxiety. “We’ve even seen it in very young children, say first or second grade. But typically math anxiety starts to show up along the sixth grade, seventh grade level,” Ashcraft told me.

What starts as pre-test jitters festers into a full-blown belief that you just can’t do math. At all.

Ashcraft says this defeatist attitude affects all kinds of life decisions, like choosing a major because it requires no math. Or, in my case, never balancing my checkbook. There is also evidence that little girls learn math anxious attitudes from female teachers. Meanwhile, studies have shown that it’s the anxiety itself, not any innate disability, that prevents students from conquering math.

Anxiety hampers us from thinking—our brain just shuts down. This isn’t a new concept. As a society we are fascinated with finding ways of hacking the mind-body connection. It’s why yoga is mainstream and meditation is on the ascent. And why Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk,”Your body language shapes who you are,” has been viewed more than 17 million times.

Cuddy is a social psychologist who studied the hormones people produce when they are in what she calls “power poses” and “low-power poses.” Stand up straight with arms outstretched and after two minutes, Cuddy found you produce more of the confidence hormone testosterone and less of the stress hormone cortisol. Curl up into a fetal position or crouch over your cell phone and you’ll get less of the confidence hormone and more of the anxiety hormone. As a result of her research, here’s what Cuddy advises:

Before you go into the next stressful evaluative situation, for two minutes, try doing this, in the elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk behind closed doors. That’s what you want to do. Configure your brain to cope the best in that situation. Get your testosterone up. Get your cortisol down.

Susan Isbister, the head NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Game Innovation Lab, saw Cuddy’s talk and had a eureka moment.

“I thought hey, math anxiety is a real problem with kids and if this power posing really works to increase confidence and help kids take risks, that would be fabulous,” Isbister told me.

Isbister and her team decided to apply Cuddy’s concepts and create a game they call Scoops!. Using Kinect, Microsoft’s motion sensing technology, kids look at the screen, line up their bodies to be in power poses, and then match fractions with virtual ice cream cones. Bigger fractions move the player into more powerful poses.

Isbister and her team are working on a second version of the game that makes sure kids move their bodies into six poses and then hold each one for 20 seconds, the minimum recommended by Cuddy.

Isbister is testing Scoops! in first grade classrooms now to scientifically verify the game’s premise. Most “educational” app developers claim their games are “based on research” but do little testing. “We want to prove it works before we release it,” Isbister says, adding, “It takes time to do this kind of interdisciplinary work which is why not more is done. It takes a while to get the design of the game right and then to run a study in a way that’s scientifically valid.”

Whether or not Scoops! actually works, Isbister’s high-tech approach to solving this decades-old problem has me fantasizing a world—my world—without math anxiety.

Meanwhile, psychologist Mark Ashcraft says he’s seen some relief of math anxiety with a low-tech intervention: prompting students to write in a diary before taking a math test. That doesn’t sound as fun as jumping around and moving virtual ice cream cones though.