# Mental rotation anxiety helps explain gender difference in math anxiety

Many people experience feelings of apprehension, tension, or discomfort when confronted with a math problem – a phenomenon known as math anxiety. Women tend to experience more math anxiety than their male peers and a new study, published in *Journal of Experimental Psychology: General*provides evidence that this gender difference is related to mental turnover anxiety.

“I was interested in gender differences in math anxiety because a lot of research suggests that math anxiety negatively impacts math performance and may be a factor that discourages women from studying. enter STEM programs and careers,” said study author Véronic Delage, a graduate student and member of the Cognition and Emotion Lab at the University of Ottawa. “As a woman, I felt it was important to study this gender difference to eventually try to address it. I was inspired to explore the impact that spatial anxiety and capacity can have about this gender difference.

Spatial ability refers to the ability to understand, remember, and mentally transform the dimensional relationships between objects. Previous research has indicated that spatial ability is closely related to mathematical competence.

For their study, the researchers asked 125 male and 286 female undergraduate students to take tests of math skills and spatial skills. Participants also completed assessments of their general level of anxiety, math anxiety, and spatial anxiety.

Delage and his colleagues looked at three different types of spatial skills. *Imaging capability* was measured with an embedded figures task in which participants had to find a simple form embedded in a complex line drawing. *Handling ability* was measured with a mental rotation task in which participants had to determine whether two 3D objects had the same shape oriented differently or whether the objects were of different shapes. *Browsing ability* was measured with the Road-Map Test of Directional Sense task in which participants traced a dotted path through a city map and indicated the direction taken at each turn.

Compared to men, women on average rated themselves as more anxious about math, imagery, mental rotation, and navigation. This was true even after controlling for general anxiety.

Delage and his colleagues found that the manipulation *anxiety* and browsing *anxiety* both partially explained the gender difference in math anxiety. The researchers also found that manipulation *aptitude* and math *aptitude* partly explains the relationship between gender and math anxiety. Of these four variables, however, manipulation anxiety emerged as the most powerful mediator.

“Can you imagine spinning your laptop in your mind? This act is called ‘mental rotation,’ a type of spatial ability,” Delage told PsyPost. One of the reasons women tend to experience more math anxiety than men is, in part, because they experience more mental turnover anxiety than men.”

“While it might sound a bit strange, many types of math require you to ‘mentally manipulate’ the math (eg, carrying a 1 when adding). This finding is important for several reasons. First, it highlights that spatial anxiety plays an important role in math-related anxiety, and second, it contributes to the growing literature linking mathematical thinking and spatial thinking more broadly.

The findings support the theory that mental rotation difficulties contribute to math difficulties, which in turn cause math anxiety. But the cross-sectional nature of the data prevents researchers from being able to draw that conclusion yet.

“The biggest caveat and important thing to remember is that our study is a correlational design, so we cannot establish causal links between spatial anxiety and ability and gender differences in math anxiety. “, explained Delage. “More research needs to be done to determine if gender difference in the spatial realm leads to gender difference in math anxiety, if perhaps gender difference in math anxiety leads to gender difference in math anxiety. gender in the spatial domain or whether the two concepts have a bidirectional relationship, such that mathematical anxiety and the spatial domain influence each other.

“I think the next step in answering some of the questions that still need to be addressed is to study these concepts in a younger population,” Delage added. “Gender differences tend to appear at the end of primary/middle school (grades 4-5). Thus, measuring children’s math anxiety, spatial ability, and spatial anxiety at multiple time points around this age could provide insight into how and when gender differences in these concepts emerge and influence each other.

The study, “Spatial anxiety and spatial ability: mediators of gender differences in math anxiety», was written by Véronic Delage, Geneviève Trudel, Fraulein Retanal and Erin A. Maloney