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Among industrialized nations, Americans have the worst relationship with arithmetic and math. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, in a field of 72 countries, American 15-year-olds placed 39th in math scores.

Those 15-year-olds grow up to be American adults who cannot do simple math.

A research study in the journal Education finds that 71% of Americans cannot calculate gas mileage, 58% cannot figure a tip, and 78% do not have the skills to compute loan interest. How do people manage these routine calculations when they have no idea how to do them? Research suggests they estimate — and “pad” their estimation. In other words, they overpay. Imagine how much money they lose by avoiding simple math.

Babies only a few months old have (very) basic math skills. By the time these babies are old enough to enter college, however, 80% will report math anxiety to researchers. What’s causing the math anxiety epidemic?

The research is clear: It’s us — parents and teachers.

In one sense, math anxiety is contagious. Parents and teachers who are anxious about math easily pass that anxiety onto their children and students.

For example, researchers writing in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that parents suffering from math anxiety tended to have children who also suffered from math anxiety — but only if parents helped the children with their homework. The more the parents helped, the more severe their children’s math anxiety became.

In fact, researchers find that more than half of those reporting math anxiety recall it beginning with a specific incident of public humiliation in school or at home. For example: going blank in front of the class, being called stupid when having difficulty with a problem, or having a teacher or parent turn their back in frustration when trying to help. Experiences like these result in “social pain.” It’s the same sort of pain one experiences after a romantic break up, suspension from work or school, or when bullied by others.

When social pain related to math happens often enough, anything associated with math — numbers, formulas, even the sight of a math textbook — generates fear and dread. It’s automatic, and when it happens, our brain goes into defense mode. A threat response. One of the major features of the threat response is hypervigilance — scanning the environment with all our senses to locate the source of the threat.

Normal brain function stops at this point, and one of the first things to go is working memory.

Working memory (or short-term memory) is our ability to hold discrete bits of information in our mind at once. Most cognitive researchers believe we can’t remember more than four numerical digits at a time. This is why telephone companies present ten-digit phone numbers as two groups of three digits and one of four digits, and financial institutions break up account numbers into groups of four. By creating “chunks” of data points, we combine numbers into portions we can keep in our conscious memory.

Math is an exercise in working memory. For example, when we multiply 23 x 2 in our mind, we first multiply 2 x 3 and hold the product of six in our working memory while multiplying 2 x 2 for a product of 4. Then, we put the four and six together for a solution of 46.

In his book, The Emotional Brain, neurologist Joe LeDoux explains what happens in our brains when we experience anxiety. When we encounter any situation — say, a math quiz — working memory holds the associated image. It simultaneously searches our long-term memory for a match.

If strong negative emotions are associated with that image, it activates the amygdala (our brain’s fear center). Immediately, a neurological chain of events is set in motion. Neural circuits activate the executive functioning area of the prefrontal cortex, and working memory immediately shifts to assessing the environment for threats. At the same time, the amygdala sends a signal to the thalamus releasing stress hormones that initiate a fight or flight instinct. Can you imagine working an algebra problem while trying to keep your fight or flight response under control?

Anxiety compromises working memory in such a way that even basic arithmetic becomes a major challenge. It’s important to remember that all of this is happening in a social context — a classroom. The fear response we experience in social situations is similar to the response we’d experience if we were about to be the victim of an auto accident.

Neurologist Matthew Lieberman has written a wonderfully informative book about social relationships and the brain, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. In a fascinating series of fMRI experiments, Lieberman finds that the same brain structure involved in processing physical pain also process the pain of social rejection. Incredibly, he discovered that over the counter pain remedies (Tylenol, for example) diminish the sensation of social pain, measured both by subjective reports from participants and objective measures of brain activity.

Roy Baumeister’s experiments examining the relationship between social pain and cognitive functioning are especially revealing, describes Lieberman. Baumeister gave some of his subjects a fake assessment indicating they would never marry and would likely have few friends. He then used IQ and GRE questions to detect changes in intellectual functioning. Subjects led to believe they would lead socially isolated lives scored about 20% lower on IQ questions and 30% lower on GRE questions than subjects who did not receive a prediction of social rejection.

If a subtle suggestion of social rejection has such a dramatic effect on cognition, imagine the effect years of math anxiety must have. Isolated episodes of embarrassment and humiliation associated with arithmetic can have devastating effects on the ability to do math many years after they occur.

Procrastinating and rushing though calculations — the two biggest reasons for poor math performance — are just ways to avoid the pain, not signs of character flaws like laziness or apathy. These are also behaviors that frustrate teachers the most. But when you think about it from the point of view of the person with math anxiety, they make perfect sense. For them, math is painful. It hurts. Exposure to any sort of math related activity recalls memories of social pain — verbal abuse by a teacher in front of classmates, or the very public humiliation of blanking out at the blackboard.

So how can we help people struggling with math anxiety? One way is to educate our children and students about common math myths.


Math Myth #1: Math Success Requires High Intelligence

We try to instill confidence by telling learners they are smart when they correctly answer a math question. Although teachers and parents have the best of intentions, this feedback easily can mislead a learner into thinking they’re dumb when they get the next question wrong. Every wrong answer is a negative reinforcement, underscoring the idea that “I’m dumb at math” and setting up the learner for continued failure.

Instead of associating math skills with intelligence, and lack of math skills with lack of intelligence, emphasize practice and study. When students get a correct answer, emphasize things they can control, like practicing sample problems or checking their work, not something out of reach like innate intelligence.

“Right! Good job. You must be practicing. I can always tell.”

“Math is like everything else — ten percent theory, ninety percent practice.”

“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.”

Math Myth #2: You Must Never Be Wrong

People with math anxiety have no tolerance for mistakes. They berate themselves when they forget to carry a three, or are off by one decimal place. They see success and failure as the only possible outcomes of a math question. In their view, there is no other option, so every mathematical operation is an opportunity for fleeting success or plumbing the depths of new humiliations.

Teachers and parents can help learners overcome this myth by not allowing them to fail. Find something positive in every “failure.” Find something to praise in every incorrect answer.

“So what if you are off by a decimal point? You did the computation correctly, and that is the hard part. Putting the decimal point in the right place is easy next to computing a formula. You’ll figure it out.”

“What do you mean you’ll never get math? Two weeks ago, you hardly knew what a fraction was and now you’re multiplying them! That’s pretty impressive even if you are making mistakes.”

“Every time you get a wrong answer you also get the opportunity to learn how not to repeat the mistake. It’s OK to make more than one mistake before you learn how to get it right. How do you suppose you learned to walk?”

Math Myth #3: You Must Be Fast

No, you don’t need to be fast. You need to be methodical. Do the problem, and then do the proof. The entire reason for doing the proof is to see if the original answer is correct. If it is not correct, look for an error in the equation and in your calculations.

Being in a hurry lends itself to feelings of anxiety, when the key to doing well in math is to be relaxed. There is no rush about this. Encourage learners to go at a slow, even leisurely, pace. This introduces the idea that math can be fun.

Also, it is OK to take breaks, whether they be short excursions to a social networking site or a short walk. Our brain is like any other part of our body. It gets fatigued by use. Encourage learners to study hard for no more than about 20 minutes at a stretch. Forcing yourself to study for longer than this just makes learning harder.

Teachers should avoid timed tests. What do timed tests measure, anyway? Do scores reflect math skills or are they a better measure of anxiety levels and frustration management? Timed tests have no relation to the math challenges students will encounter in the real world. They do little more than create anxiety and lower scores. Avoid them. Instead, preach the virtues of a slow and methodical approach to math problems.

Math Myth #4: You Know How Good You Are By Comparing Yourself to Others

Researchers find that learners have one of two orientations: a performance orientation and a mastery orientation.

Learners in the performance orientation measure their performance by comparing themselves with others or against set criteria. Learners with a performance orientation tend to suffer from math anxiety more often, and to greater severity, than learners with a mastery orientation.

Learners with a mastery orientation are motivated to learn by the intrinsic value of learning or for the personal satisfaction of knowing useful skills.

Formal education evaluates learners exclusively from a performance perspective. In this traditional view, students compete with one another against set criteria. The approach almost guarantees that a good portion of students will face huge learning challenges.

The good news? Parents and teachers can easily address this issue by helping learners adopt a mastery orientation. Adults should emphasize improvements over time for individual students. The message should be one not of competition, but growth.

Math Myth #5: Poor Math Skills Are Signs of a Learning Disorder

The only proven learning disorder affecting math skills is dyscalculia. People with this condition often do not realize what a number represents: the amount of something in the world. They may not understand the concept of one quantity being larger than another, or that the number “5” refers to five different things.

Dyscalculia is very rare. People who think they have it most likely have garden-variety math anxiety. The only way to be sure is through comprehensive testing. However, if a learner shows they can improve their skills even minimally, they likely do not have a legitimate disability.

Study and practice are the only way to learn math. The more fun and rewarding teachers and parents can make it, the better learners perform.


A few closing tips to sum things up:

  • Celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small.
  • Emphasize the importance of study and practice over innate intelligence.
  • Discourage long uninterrupted study sessions. We are only good for about 20 minutes of intense study.
  • Encourage a mastery mindset. The learner is competing with themselves — not other students, or a clock.
  • Check out the books mentioned above: Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, and The Emotional Brain.