Research Article: How does mathematics anxiety impair mathematical abilities? Investigating the link between math anxiety, working memory, and number processing

Date Published: January 25, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kenny Skagerlund, Rickard Östergren, Daniel Västfjäll, Ulf Träff, Jérôme Prado.


In contemporary society, it is essential to have adequate mathematical skills. Being numerate has been linked to positive life outcomes and well-being in adults. It is also acknowledged that math anxiety (MA) hampers mathematical skills increasingly with age. Still, the mechanisms by which MA affect performance remain debated. Using structural equation modeling (SEM), we contrast the different ways in which MA has been suggested to interfere with math abilities. Our models indicate that MA may affect math performance through three pathways: (1) indirectly through working memory ability, giving support for the ‘affective drop’ hypothesis of MA’s role in mathematical performance, (2) indirectly through symbolic number processing, corroborating the notion of domain-specific mechanisms pertaining to number, and (3) a direct effect of MA on math performance. Importantly, the pathways vary in terms of their relative strength depending on what type of mathematical problems are being solved. These findings shed light on the mechanisms by which MA may interfere with mathematical performance.

Partial Text

Learning mathematics is a complex endeavor that is both cognitively and, sometimes, emotionally challenging. Still, in contemporary society, it is essential to have adequate mathematical skills. Lack thereof can severely hamper one’s prospects of making well-informed decisions about financial matters and other aspects relating to one’s psychological and physical well-being [1] [2] [3]. Decisions relying on numerical abilities are ubiquitous in every aspect of life, ranging from trivial everyday interactions in the local supermarket to significant choices about whether to buy a house, switching careers, and whether to undergo risky medical treatments [4]. Therefore, being able to understand and use numerical information is imperative, both from the perspective of the single individual, but also for society as a whole. However, far from everyone is functionally numerate and it is estimated that roughly 25% of the British population suffers from low numeracy [5]. In turn, low numeracy in the population constitutes a major socio-economical cost to nations [1]. In the American population, a large nationwide survey indicates that roughly half of the adult population lack the minimal numerical skills required to use numbers in printed materials, such as calculating change in price menus [6]. Thus, it is absolutely essential to investigate how we can foster a fertile learning environment in the early school years and also investigate how these mathematical and cognitive abilities develop into adulthood. One important emotional factor that adversely affects individuals’ prospects of attaining adequate math skills is mathematics anxiety (MA), which can be defined as “…feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.” [7]. The detrimental effect of MA on mathematical performance is well-established (see [8] for a review), but the exact mechanisms by which it hampers performance remain inconclusive. The prevalence rate has been reported to be between around 11% in university students [7] and 17% in the population [9]. This high frequency is alarming given the negative impact of MA on math ability. Researchers have proposed that MA may develop as a result of a sense of failure in math, negative attitude transfer from teachers, or due to cognitive factors [10]. Some findings indicate that MA hampers attentional resources and working memory (WM) processes that in turn impedes mathematical operations (e.g., [11]), whereas others argue that MA undermines more basic number processing abilities (e.g., [12] [10]). While researchers have made significant progress in trying to understand how mathematical abilities develop throughout ontogeny (e.g., [13] [14] [15] [16]) in terms of the cognitive abilities that underlie typical and atypical achievement, surprisingly little is known about the manifestation of how MA affects math performance.

An overview of the descriptive results can be found in Table 1 below. The Mplus 7 software [58] was used to estimate the models.

The focus of the current study was to contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms by which MA undermines mathematical abilities in adults. It has since long been established that MA is related to poor math performance, and indirectly to education and career path choice [11] [43] [44], and that MA affects performance long into adulthood. Still, the mechanisms by which it affects math abilities remain elusive. Using SEM we could determine plausible pathways through which it acts on math performance. Specifically, we juxtaposed two different accounts of how MA interferes with mathematical processing. The first account maintains that individuals with MA are inflicted with negative emotions that prompts emotional and cognitive control responses that in turn drain WM resources available for the task at hand (e.g., [11] [43]). According to this account, MA should affect math ability indirectly through WM. According to the second account, MA primarily interferes with mathematics abilities through poorer basic number processing [51] [12]. Therefore, MA should indirectly influence math ability through basic number processing ability. Given that different cognitive abilities support different aspects of mathematics [16] [17] [18] [19] we also investigated whether MA undermines two different aspects of math to the same degree and through the same pathways.




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