Exploring the Influence of Basic Cognitive Skills on the Relation Between Math Performance and Math Anxiety

Heather P. Douglas, Jo-Anne LeFevre


What causes math anxiety? According to a cognitive deficits view, early weaknesses in basic number and spatial skills lead to poor performance and hence negative affect. A strong version of this view suggests that the relation between math anxiety and math performance among adults will be explained by deficits in spatial and basic number skills. In the present research, we tested a model to account for the relations among math anxiety, math performance, and cognitive skills (i.e., working memory, basic number and spatial skills) among adults (N = 90). We replicated the modest correlations observed between math anxiety and these cognitive skills. However, we did not find a direct link between basic number and spatial skills and math anxiety; instead, these relations were mediated by complex math performance. We conclude by rejecting the hypothesis that math anxiety in adults is linked directly to individual differences in spatial and basic numerical skills and suggest instead that the present results are consistent with the alternative view in which even basic numerical tasks, under certain conditions may evoke an anxiety response and mask skill proficiency. Finally, we note that caution should be applied when extrapolating correlational results to make causal claims about whether cognitive skills may be precursors in the development of math anxiety.


Math anxiety; cognition; basic number skills; spatial skills; cognitive deficits; working memory

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Copyright (c) 2018 Douglas; LeFevre