From the PsyBlog. Fear of Math: How Much is Genetic?
Last Updated on March 26, 2014 by Joseph Gut – thasso
March 25, 2014 – This evening, I am no longer bothering with the homework burden of math the boys will come after me when I return home from a 14 hours working day. I simply will copy this article from the PsyBlog and have the boys show to the teacher tomorrow morning explaining why they could not possibly complete their assignments in due time because of fear. Fear of math. And her father, that would be me, likely suffers from the same syndrome and can do nothing about it: it’s in the genes.
In fact, according to a new study by Wang et. al., (2014) , published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the fear of math has a genetic component and there appear to exist at least two ways by which genetic factors are important players in the fear of math. It seems that the avoidance of mathematical problems and equations by children and adults isn’t just down to bad early experiences with math or poor teaching. To reach this conclusion, the study looked at the math anxiety of twins to tease out the genetic component.
Zhe Wang, lead author of the study, explained the results: “We found that math anxiety taps into genetic predispositions in two ways: people’s cognitive performance on math and their tendency toward anxiety.” In other words people are anxious about math not just because they are generally anxious people and they’re anxious about everything, but also because of genetically poor math/thinking skills. But anxiety can mean people find it difficult to develop what math skills they do have. Wang continued: “If you’re anxious, it is often harder to solve problems. The anxiety response actually inhibits some people’s ability. We have to help children learn to regulate their emotions so that the anxiety doesn’t keep them from achieving their best in math.” The research found that around 40% of math anxiety came down to genetic factors: both generalized anxiety and cognitive ability combined. The remaining 60% was related to differences in the home environment, at school and elsewhere.
Why twins are ideal participants / objects in this type of study
These findings are based on tests of 216 identical twins and 298 same-sex fraternal twins. Twins are often used in this sort of research because they share similar environmental factors, like parents, family income, neighborhood and so on. Identical twins, though, have the same genetic code on top of similar environmental factors, whereas fraternal twins just happen to be born at the same time. This allows researchers to compare fraternal with identical twins to examine the effects of genes, while keeping environmental effects (parents, siblings, socioeconomic factors etc.) much the same.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Stephen Petrill, said: Genetic factors may exacerbate or reduce the risk of doing poorly at math. If you have these genetic risk factors for math anxiety and then you have negative experiences in math classes, it may make learning that much harder. It is something we need to account for when we’re considering interventions for those who need help in math.