A new study has found that the reason why boys are better at maths than girls.
The study shows that this is because girls, already bogged down with the stereotypes that they are not as good at maths as boys, tend to worry more, and this erodes the mental resources needed for problem solving.
The study researchers found that this threat to performance caused by stereotyping can also hinder success in other academic areas because mental abilities do not immediately rebound after being compromised by mathematics anxiety.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers led by Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago.
As part of the study, researchers selected a group of college women who performed well in mathematics. They were then randomly assigned to two groups, with one set of women being told that they were being tested to see why men generally do better on math than women, and the other group being told simply that they were part of an experiment on mathematics performance.
Researchers found that the information that men do better in mathematics than women undercut performance drastically. The accuracy of women exposed to the stereotype was reduced from nearly 90 percent in a pre-test to about 80 percent after being told men do better in mathematics. Among women not receiving that message, performance actually improved slightly.
The study also showed that the verbal portion of the working memory was the portion of the women's mental resources that was most strongly undermined by the anxiety.
The researchers showed that women experiencing mathematics anxiety found it more difficult to solve problems when they were written out horizontally than when they appeared vertically. Previous findings show that solving horizontal problems relies heavily on verbal resources.
In order to see if mathematics anxiety had any lasting impact on performance in the short term, the researchers repeated the test and then gave the women a standard memory test involving verbal information.
Researchers found that the women did less well on that test if they were exposed to the mathematics stereotyping.
"This may mean that if a girl takes a verbal portion of a standardized test after taking the mathematics portion, she may not do as well on the verbal portion as she might do if she had not been recently struggling with math-related worries and anxiety," Beilock said.
"Likewise, our work suggests that if a girl has a mathematics class first thing in the morning and experiences math-related worries in this class, these worries may carry implications for her performance in the class she attends next," she said.
"We demonstrated that worries about confirming a negative group stereotype may not only impact performance in the stereotyped domain, but that this impact can spill over onto subsequent, unrelated tasks that depend on the same processing resource the stereotype-related worries consume," Beilock wrote.
The findings of the study were published in May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.