Choking Under Stress - Math, Anxiety, and Girls

Psychologist Sian Beilock has a new book out on the Science of the Choke that looks into why talented and skilled people are prone to cracking or underperforming under pressure.

Some of Beilock's work looks at why girls are more prone to math anxiety and underperforming in the classroom. Math anxiety is considered a 'stereotype threat' because it conforms to a gender expectation. When teachers are anxious about math themselves (elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly female), they seem to translate this anxiety to the girls in their class and girls with math-anxious teachers are more likely to underperform. Tricky business.

Beilock looks more closely at why math anxiety makes students choke and finds that students defeat themselves by swamping their working memories with thoughts or words to themselves like "I hate math", or "When I hurry, I make mistakes".

In fact, if students are required to verbalize their steps, they don't have working memory space for anxious thoughts, and they do better. This is a low tech solution to math anxiety and choking - have student talk to themselves as they work their way through problems.

One final point that may be beneficial for high working memory performers like many gifted:

 "Our work may be especially relevant to individuals higher in WM capacity, as past research has shown that the performance of these individuals is, ironically, more impacted by pressure than the performance of their lower WM counterparts. The current findings align with the suggestion that situation-induced worries compete for the WM resources that individuals with higher WM capacity normally rely on for their superior performance. Thus, it may be that a talk-aloud intervention would benefit higher WM individuals the most."

Choking under pressure at Psychology Today
Math stress picture


  1. Am I misreading that bar chart? It looks like it is saying that the average end of the year math ability of the girls in the control group is around 102, but that the end of the year ability of the girls with anxious teachers is around 108! In short, it appears to say that girls do BETTER in math if their teachers are anxious! (And that girls with anxious teachers do better than boys with anxious teachers, suggesting that boys do not do well with anxious teachers, but girls do.) Am I misreading it?

  2. Thanks, Nyx. I just removed the chart. Perhaps I reversed the labels. Sorry - some health issues came up with our dd and I probably shouldn't post when I'm rushed!

  3. Steve Richter9:40 PM

    Well, I'm a guy and have suffered the same thing ... so I question why this is directed at girls. I'm pretty good a math, with a Bachelor's degree in Physics and coursework toward a Ph.D. in physics ... but despite my love for science, I have always been extremely anxious about math, to the extent that I would completely freeze up on physics exams in college and graduate school, despite the fact that I knew the material! Take away the pressure of testing and I'm good to go ... !

  4. You're right, Steve. No fair. This group has been interested in stereotype threat - so for women it's math, for Caucasian men it was jumping ("White men can't jump").

    The great at physics, weak at basic math facts (in my family tree too) seems like such a common pattern. I wonder if there's been more systematic study of this...

  5. My 11 yr old daughter is in the gifted and talented maths class, but still thinks that she isn't good at maths! She is constantly surprised that her peers can't do the things she can as easily as she can in her maths class. The solution that your post puts forward is definitely worth a try!