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Genetics impacts feelings of anxiety surrounding mathematics

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Different levels of anxiety complement different activities, report scientists who have previously studied anxiety. Likewise, anxiety induced by mathematical activities comes in varying levels, but researchers now conclude that anxiety surrounding mathematics, in particular, may be genetic.

Researchers from King’s College London tested anxiety levels in participants while they completed tasks, such as reading a map and solving simple geometry problems.

The population sample consisted of nearly 1,500 pairs of twins who were selected from the "Twins Early Development Study," a twin study based in the United Kingdom. The researchers contacted over 16,000 families with twins born between 1994 and 1996 to take part in the study. Currently, 10,000 twins are still in the process of contributing to the study. Each family resides in either England or Wales.

Researchers selected twins to measure anxiety surrounding mathematics as a genetic predisposition. Each twin shared at least 50 percent of the DNA with the other twin. Each set of twins was evaluated using The Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item Scale, a test used to determine anxiety disorders in clinical cases. GAD-7 results help identify signs of panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety. The scale asks participants to rate seven problems on a scale of one to four, which respectively covers the range between “not at all” bothered to bothered “nearly every day.”

King's College researchers had study participants test anxiety levels through certain tasks, including geometry problems. Photo by: Calvin Rong

Researchers also modified the Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale to specifically determine the level of anxiety caused by mathematics. The AMAS uses a five-point scale to determine how anxious participants are when confronted with nine math-related activities. Examples include reading a math book or listening to a math lecture. All of the participants had already left school, so researchers also slightly modified the examples.

The researchers also tested a measure of spatial anxiety among the participants. Spatial thinking involves activities such as mental navigation, mental rotation and spatial visualization. The test asked participants to rate how comfortable they were with finding their way around meandering streets, using a shortcut without a map and following instructions to get to a new location. To measure rotation and visualization, participants were asked about their comfort level with completing a jigsaw puzzle or mentally rotating objects and figures.

Regarding gender differences and anxiety associated with math, the study writes: “Socio-cultural factors, such as the gender stereotype surrounding mathematics and, more generally, [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects may contribute to these observed sex differences in anxiety. For example, women who value mathematics, and are acquainted with the social stereotype that women tend not to do as well as men in mathematics, tend to be the most sensitive to the pressure of gender stereotype and to feel anxious about mathematics.”

The study examines the link between spatial and mathematical abilities and success in STEM fields and concludes that anxiety may prevent people from reaching success in those professions. Lack of motivation to perform these skills may also deter people from exercising or trying them.

The researchers identified and accounted for different forms of anxiety, such as general anxiety, mathematical anxiety and spatial anxiety.

The results consistently revealed that each form of anxiety showed a strong genetic connection to each individual twin who participated in the study, indicating that anxiety may be a genetically determined quality. Differences in spatial anxiety, in particular, were not pinpointed to a cause. However, researchers speculate that the difference in twins’ levels of spatial anxiety can be attributed to the fact that they take part in different extracurricular activities and have different teachers or different groups of friends.

Anxiety associated with math directly correlates with less involvement in math-based programs. It also disables and discourages students from pursuing or further developing math skills.

This study can further assist in helping to pinpoint anxiety-inducing factors in children and students in an academic setting. It can help educators and parents predict the topics in which anxiety will most likely arise and whom it will most likely affect. This may enable educators to prepare interventions to help students get over this anxiety and increase their individual performance in areas where math is required or expected.

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