Can 'math trauma' hurt people's finances?

Math trauma can follow people beyond grade school to harm their prospects well into adulthood.

Photo credit: RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images
  • As much as 17 percent of the American population may suffer from math trauma.
  • Math trauma prevents people from engaging in financial activities and may harm their career prospects.
  • Experts agree that developing growth mindsets in students is critical to prevent further harm.


No subject terrorizes more students than math. A major reason for this is how we teach it. There's the intense memorization of hieroglyphic formulas, the ticking clock of the math test, and the do-or-die nature of a problem's one correct answer. To a child's mind it's as stressful as disarming a bomb — but with the far more dire outcome of a bad test score.

When people finally gain control of their education, many choose to limit their exposure to math and joke that they'll never use any of those theorems anyway. But for those who suffer "math trauma," a condition in which engaging with mathematics causes true fear and distress, these youthful struggles with Pythagoras can have lasting repercussions.

Math follows

The concept of "number anxiety" was introduced as far back as 1957. Its modern moniker "math trauma" (a.k.a. "math anxiety") has gained public awareness thanks to the efforts of math reformers such as Jennifer Ruef, assistant professor of education studies at the University of Oregon.

"One of the biggest challenges U.S. math educators face is helping the large number of elementary teachers who are dealing with math trauma. Imagine being tasked with teaching children mathematics when it is one of your greatest personal fears," Ruef writes.

Estimates of the condition's prevalence vary, and there remains no clear criterion for how distressed someone must find math before being considered traumatized. Nonetheless, a meta-analysis of the research did show a widespread phenomenon. Of the studies analyzed, one found that 11 percent of university students showed math trauma severe enough for counseling. Another suggested that as much as 17 percent of Americans have high math anxiety.

These statistics reinforce Jo Boaler's claim that intense negative emotions surrounding mathematics aren't uncommon.

A math reformer and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Boaler writes: "Mathematics, more than any other subject, has the power to crush students' spirits, and many adults do not move on from mathematics experiences in school if they are negative. When students get the idea they cannot do math, they often maintain a negative relationship with mathematics throughout the rest of their lives."

Finance macabre

Math trauma degrades a person's numerical acumen in two ways. First, it causes avoidance of mathematical undertakings. As a student, this avoidance can extend beyond the classroom and into extracurricular activities, while adults may avoid, or entirely ignore, life pursuits that are math-dependent.

Second, when someone is required to work out a mathematical problem, their associated memories and emotions come into play. If these emotions are disquieting, they can overcharge the person's working memory resources, depleting them of their ability to both learn and perform math.

as math success decreases, finance students' anxiety increases.

This can be especially troubling for adults because — despite what we may tell ourselves — we most certainly use math in everyday life. Granted, few of us have been required to find the volume of an icosahedron, and fewer still can tell you the last time they used the quadratic function. But math is a constant in the realm of personal finance, and this fact can prove deleterious to those who suffer math trauma.

Studies looking at business majors have found that math anxiety is a major source for the onerous reputation of finance courses. For instance, the researchers of one study found that anxiety manifests in quantitatively demanding environments. As a result, despite math's critical role in business success, students delay in taking the required finance and statistic courses. What's more, when they did undertake them, they were found to be less prepared and performed poorer in class.

Another study looked at 1,440 students in business departments across nine Turkish universities. It found that finance department students have a higher level of math anxiety than other business students, and that as math success decreases, student anxiety increases.

This research is limited in sample size and to a specific demographic; however, it reflects the way we see math trauma influencing people's lives beyond their education.

Boaler provides one such anecdote in her 2015 book Mathematical Mindsets. Dr. Vivien Perry was an award-winning British scientist who served as a vice chair of council for University College and as a science presenter on the BBC. Yet, she also had a crippling fear of mathematics. Despite her obvious intelligence, she found math so terrifying that she couldn't bring herself to work out the percentages in her taxes.

But math trauma doesn't just interfere with taxes and balanced checkbooks. Boaler cites studies that suggest the more math classes a student takes the higher their future earnings, the more productive their careers, and the more likely they are to receive promotions.

Changing the formula

How can we improve our relationship with mathematics, both for students and adults? First, we need abolish our belief in the math person, that mythical individual who is innately gifted at mathematics because their brain was built for it. Such a person simply doesn't exist.

As developmental psychology Steven Pinker points out in this book How the Mind Works, people don't come pre-equipped with mathematical know-how:

"On evolutionary grounds it would be surprising if children were mentally equipped for school mathematics. These tools were invented recently in history and only in a few cultures, too late and too local to stamp the human genome. The mothers of these inventions were the recording and trading of farming surpluses in the first agricultural civilizations."

To be sure, some people pick up some mathematical concepts quicker than others, and people who enjoy math thanks to positive experiences will likely pursue more. But the reason some people excel at math while others flounder, Pinker notes, is the same reason some people play Carnegie Hall. Practice.

So the question isn't how we can get better at math, but how we can enjoy math enough to practice it without anguish.

Boaler's philosophy is to devise teaching methods that build growth mindsets. We need both students and adults to believe that skills are something that can be fostered through practice and hard work. Math is a skill and, therefore, no different.

Like Boaler, Jennifer Ruef teaches educators strategies to promote growth mindsets surrounding math. Above all, she recommends educators, and parents, make math fun and encourage kids to explain their thinking. She also prescribes re-framing failures as explorations — a hallmark outlook of the growth mindset — and avoid sending the message that some people simply aren't "math people."

As Ruef reminds us: "If you recognize that you are a survivor of math trauma, take heart. You are not alone, and there are ways to heal. It starts with understanding that mathematics is broad and beautiful — most of us are much more mathematical than we think."

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