When I was in my early twenties, I spent a summer at a monastery with some remarkable nuns. The beekeeper had been on Wall Street, the woman in charge of milk, butter, and cheese had been a lawyer. I was wildly impressed at the wide range of accomplishments this cheese expert laid in front of me (don’t forget prayers in Gregorian chant seven times a day). And yet, despite all her life experience, she confessed a complete and total paralysis when faced with math.

Math phobia. Math anxiety. “I’m not good at math.” It’s natural to have a most preferred and a least preferred subject (my least preferred is history). But rarely does anyone talk about a history phobia or a geography phobia or a feeling of crushing anxiety at the prospect of social science class. My acquaintance in the dairy had avoided learning math for half her life as a result of her negative emotions associated with it. At the time I arrived on the scene, she was conquering her fears in order to relearn high school math. It had only taken…20 years to work up the courage.

What is at the root of math anxiety? Math is a useful tool, and the anxiety surrounding it only functions as a forcefield, preventing otherwise capable humans from mastering restaurant tips and retail sale price calculations. The calculations are not all mundane; anyone taking on any form of debt should understand the meaning of the contracts they’ve signed, as well as the consequences of their behavior or a change in the contract conditions.

Studies show that people with math anxiety have poorer math skills than those without. If math anxiety and math skills are related in a meaningful way (which they likely are), there are two directions that can reinforce the connection between the two. The first is that poor skills cause the anxiety. The second is the reverse: the anxiety causes poor skills. If it is both of these together, that’s what we call a “positive feedback loop.” Much like holding a microphone up to a speaker, pretty quickly the noise gets loud and overwhelming. One branch of economics looks at what is called “self-signaling.” This is the idea that you don’t know quite what type of person you are (do I have lots of willpower? None at all?), so you use your past behavior to form some sort of prediction as to what type you are. Math anxiety can arise out of this process (Am I a math genius? Am I not?). This is destructive when this process is occurring simultaneously with actual math tasks. Imagine you are given a particularly difficult problem. You notice that you don’t know where to start, and unconsciously, you take this a signal that you are the not-genius type. This, however, shifts focus away from the actual task (solving the problem). Doing two tasks at once (solving a math problem while trying to approximate your math ability) is always harder than doing one at a time, thus leading to a very direct impairment.

Math anxiety develops early. Nearly fifty percent of 1^{st} and 2^{nd} grade students reported medium to high levels of math anxiety, being “moderately nervous” to “very, very nervous” about math.^{1} Americans perform more poorly on math skills tests, and part of this may be the result of a cultural understanding of where success comes from. In an NPR radio show on the difference between Japanese, Taiwanese, and American students, they point out that Americans attribute success in school to being “smart,” whereas Taiwanese and Japanese attribute it to practice. The differences appear even before students start attending school, in small conversations between mother and child. This leads to a very different interpretation of academic struggle between the two cultures. For an American student, the first sign of struggle triggers the “am I smart” question, whereas it might be less likely to for a Taiwanese student. In one study between American students and Japanese students, American students gave up working on a difficult math problem within a minute, whereas the Japanese students struggled for an hour. One of the keys to mitigating math anxiety lies in letting go of any ideas about what your performance means.

And as for improving actual math skills, the answer lies in the teaching. Dr. Boaler of Stanford University uses and advocates for the use of visual and spatial tasks to learn math, rather than memorization. In one study, “The researchers tutored the group of students with math disabilities for eight weeks using the methods Boaler recommends like visualizing math, discussing problems and writing about math. At the end of the eight weeks, they scanned their brains again and found that the brains of the test group looked just like the kids who did not have math disabilities.”^{3 }It seems “I’m just not good at math” is not the right answer.

1. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/beilock.pdf

3. http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/30/not-a-math-person-how-to-remove-obstacles-to-learning-math/