"Math anxiety is a bigger influence on how people do math and how much they learn about math than experimental psychologists feel comfortable believing," says psychologist Mark H. Ashcraft, PhD. "It's not just another reason why students whine and complain."
In a study published in the June issue (Vol. 130, No. 2) of APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology, Ashcraft, of Cleveland State University, and Elizabeth P. Kirk, now at Florida State University, looked at math anxiety from a different angle. "A lot of the research looks at what it correlates with, rather than the difference it makes when actually doing math," Ashcraft says.
Ashcraft and Kirk studied people during problem-solving to evaluate how math anxiety affects mathematical cognition. Their results revealed that increased math anxiety is associated with decreased working memory capacity. Individuals with high math anxiety showed a significant decline in problem-solving performance. They have less working memory space to effectively deal with math problems, propose the authors, because their math anxiety is using working memory space that could be used to solve math problems.
Also, individuals with increased math anxiety enroll in fewer math courses and do poorly in those they take. The authors suggest that math anxiety ultimately affects competence, not because the anxiety-ridden individual is innately less able, but simply because the person's avoidance of math does not allow for practice and therefore mastery of it. Ashcraft and Kirk posit that some of the working memory space can be "freed up" by eliminating the anxiety.
"Most surprising is that math anxiety makes a difference at all--that it's causing the effect; there is a gut-level disbelief that math anxiety is anything besides something to complain about," says Ashcraft.
Several effective cognitive-behavioral strategies can be taught to those affected, he says.
Anxiety management--muscle relaxation, deep breathing--or self-reinforcement techniques can be taught to clients for use "when they're in math situations. Rather than saying 'I've never been any good at math' they begin to say 'I'm learning how to do math just like everyone has to, and there's nothing to be afraid of,'" says Ashcraft. "It's a learned phobia--so it can be unlearned."