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Sci Adv. 2019 Nov 20;5(11):eaay1062. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aay1062. eCollection 2019 Nov.

Calculated avoidance: Math anxiety predicts math avoidance in effort-based decision-making.

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Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.
Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
President, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.


Math anxiety-negative feelings toward math-is hypothesized to be associated with the avoidance of math-related activities such as taking math courses and pursuing STEM careers. However, there is little experimental evidence for the math anxiety-avoidance link. Such evidence is important for formulating how to break this relationship. We hypothesize that math avoidance emerges when one perceives the costs of effortful math engagement to outweigh its benefits and that this perception depends on individual differences in math anxiety. To test this hypothesis, we developed an effort-based decision-making task in which participants chose between solving easy, low-reward problems and hard, high-reward problems in both math and nonmath contexts. Higher levels of math anxiety were associated with a tendency to select easier, low-reward problems over harder, high-reward math (but not word) problems. Addressing this robust math anxiety-avoidance link has the potential to increase interest and success in STEM fields.

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