The role of self-math overlap in understanding math anxiety and the relation between math anxiety and performance

Front Psychol. 2015 Oct 14;6:1543. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01543. eCollection 2015.

Abstract

Recent work has demonstrated that math anxiety is more than just the product of poor math skills. Psychosocial factors may play a key role in understanding what it means to be math anxious, and hence may aid in attempts to sever the link between math anxiety and poor math performance. One such factor may be the extent to which individuals integrate math into their sense of self. We adapted a well-established measure of this degree of integration (i.e., self-other overlap) to assess individuals' self-math overlap. This non-verbal single-item measure showed that identifying oneself with math (having higher self-math overlap) was strongly associated with lower math anxiety (r = -0.610). We also expected that having higher self-math overlap would leave one especially susceptible to the threat of poor math performance to the self. We identified two competing hypotheses regarding how this plays out in terms of math anxiety. Those higher in self-math overlap might be more likely to worry about poor math performance, exacerbating the negative relation between math anxiety and math ability. Alternatively, those higher in self-math overlap might exhibit self-serving biases regarding their math ability, which would instead predict a decoupling of the relation between their perceived and actual math ability, and in turn the relation between their math ability and math anxiety. Results clearly favored the latter hypothesis: those higher in self-math overlap exhibited almost no relation between math anxiety and math ability, whereas those lower in self-math overlap showed a strong negative relation between math anxiety and math ability. This was partially explained by greater self-serving biases among those higher in self-math overlap. In sum, these results reveal that the degree to which one integrates math into one's self - self-math overlap - may provide insight into how the pernicious negative relation between math anxiety and math ability may be ameliorated.

Keywords: inclusion of other in self; math ability; math anxiety; math performance; self-math overlap.