Does Anxiety Explain Why Math-Anxious People Underperform in Math? (Richard Daker et al)


Does Anxiety Explain Why Math-Anxious People Underperform in Math?


Math-anxious people consistently underperform in math. The most widely-accepted explanation for why this underperformance occurs is that math-anxious people experience heightened anxiety when faced with math, and this in-the-moment anxiety interferes with performance. Surprisingly, this explanation has not been tested directly. Here, using both self-report and physiological indices of anxiety, we directly test how much in-the-moment anxiety explains math-anxious underperformance. Results indicate that in-the-moment anxiety indeed explains why math-anxious people underperform – but only partially, suggesting a need to seriously consider alternative mechanisms. Results also showed that while some highly math-anxious individuals – those with high levels of heart rate variability – experienced less in-the-moment anxiety, they nevertheless performed no better at math. For these individuals, math-anxious underperformance must occur for reasons unrelated to in-the-moment anxiety. More broadly, our findings point to substantial individual heterogeneity in the mechanisms underlying math-anxious underperformance. Accounting for this mechanistic heterogeneity may prove vital for optimally boosting math performance in math-anxious individuals.


Daker, R. J., Gattas, S. U., Sokolowski, H. M., Green, A. E., & Lyons, I. M. (2021). First-year students’ math anxiety predicts STEM avoidance and underperformance throughout university, independently of math ability. NPJ Science of Learning, 6(1), 17.