Are You Afraid Of Math?: Math Anxiety May Be In Your Genes

Woman feeling nervous and stressed in front of chalkboard with math problems
Does hearing the word “math” make you cringe? You may be genetically predisposed to math anxiety. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Many of us may recall sharpening our No. 2 pencil, opening our math packets, and suddenly beginning to feel our hearts beating faster and our palms getting sweaty as we frantically crunched in numbers on our calculator. The numbers written in fine black print started to look incomprehensible, and before we knew it, we had five minutes left but were still on question number one — a sign of math anxiety. Although negative experiences in math could make most of us anxious just looking at numbers, a study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found math anxiety may lie in our genes because of risks related to both general anxiety and math skills.

"We found that math anxiety taps into genetic predispositions in two ways: people's cognitive performance on math and their tendency toward anxiety," said Zhe Wang, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the Ohio State University. Math anxiety has recently gained attention because of its damaging psychological effects and its links to math problem-solving and achievement. A fear of math is not a reflection of a student’s true ability in math but rather an emotional problem that interferes with a person’s ability to learn math, which results in an intellectual problem, according to Texas State University counseling center.

A team of researchers at OSU believe genetics may play a more prominent role in math anxiety, alongside environmental factors. Fear could make it difficult for people to further develop the math skills they already have, as genetic factors may exacerbate this risk. The researchers recruited 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins who participated in the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects — an ongoing long-term study of twins in Ohio — to investigate the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to differences in anxiety during math tasks. This study included data from the last two home visits of the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects, when the twins were between 9 and 15 years old.

The participants completed assessments of math anxiety, general anxiety, math problem-solving, and reading comprehension. The researchers then used statistical tools to see how these measures of anxiety and math and reading ability were related between fraternal twins and between identical twins. This served to reach a conclusion how differences in math anxiety could be explained by genetic factors, and how much of these differences were attributed to environmental factors such as home and school.

Prior to the study, the researchers were unclear about how vital is the role of genetics is in math anxiety and how it originates. They questioned whether it was due to a lack of math skills or wheter it was related to a person’s predisposition to anxiety. The findings revealed genetic factors explained about 40 percent of the individual differences in math anxiety, according to Medical Xpress. A predisposition to general anxiety and performance in math skills, along with environmental factors helped determined how the participants experienced math.

“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,” said Dr. Stephen Petrill, principal investigator of the study, and professor of psychology at Ohio State. "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.”

This study may help educators, parents, and even students approach math difficulties in a different way by addressing not only intellectual but emotional problems, like anxiety. Tackling both anxiety and math skills will help encourage a student to learn and perform better in math classes. After all, math anxiety is 40 percent genetic and 60 percent environmental factors.


Source: Bartlett CW, Hart SA, Kovas Y, Lukowski S, Lyons IM, Thompson LA. Who is afraid of math? Two sources of genetic variance for mathematical anxiety. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2014.