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Genetic factors underlie the association between anxiety, attitudes and performance in mathematics

By Margherita Malanchini, Kaili Rimfeld, Zhe Wang, Stephen A. Petrill, Elliot M. Tucker-Dob, Robert Plomin, Yulia Kovas

Posted 31 Jul 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/719393 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41398-020-0711-3)

Students struggling with mathematics anxiety (MA) tend to show lower levels of mathematics self-efficacy and interest as well as lower performance. The current study addresses: (1) how MA relates to different aspects of mathematics attitudes (self-efficacy and interest), ability (understanding numbers, problem-solving ability, and approximate number sense) and achievement (exam scores); (2) to what extent these observed relations are explained by overlapping genetic and environmental factors; and (3) the role of general anxiety in accounting for these associations. The sample comprised 3,410 twin pairs aged 16-21 years, from the Twins Early Development Study. Negative associations of comparable strength emerged between MA and the two measures of mathematics attitudes, phenotypically (~ -.45) and genetically (~ -.70). Moderate negative phenotypic (~ -.35) and strong genetic (~ -.70) associations were observed between MA and measures of mathematics performance. The only exception was approximate number sense whose phenotypic (-.10) and genetic (-.31) relation with MA was weaker. Multivariate quantitative genetic analyses indicated that all mathematics-related measures combined accounted for ~75% of the genetic variance in MA and ~20% of its environmental variance. Genetic effects were largely shared across all measures of mathematics anxiety, attitudes, abilities and achievement, with the exception of approximate number sense. This genetic overlap was not accounted for by general anxiety. These results have important implications for future genetic research concerned with identifying the genetic underpinnings of individual variation in mathematics-related traits, as well as for developmental research into how children select and modify their mathematics-related experiences partly based on their genetic predispositions.

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