Basically, if you feel anxious you don’t ‘gut check’ the first – and in this case – wrong answer. And on top of that the anxiety places a burden on working memory which is essential to problem solving.
Mathematical anxiety is linked to reduced cognitive reflection: a potential road from discomfort in the mathematics classroom to susceptibility to biases
When asked to solve mathematical problems, some people experience anxiety and threat, which can lead to impaired mathematical performance (Curr Dir Psychol Sci 11:181-185, 2002). The present studies investigated the link between mathematical anxiety and performance on the cognitive reflection test (CRT; J Econ Perspect 19:25-42, 2005). The CRT is a measure of a person’s ability to resist intuitive response tendencies, and it correlates strongly with important real-life outcomes, such as time preferences, risk-taking, and rational thinking.
In Experiments 1 and 2 the relationships between maths anxiety, mathematical knowledge/mathematical achievement, test anxiety and cognitive reflection were analysed using mediation analyses. Experiment 3 included a manipulation of working memory load. The effects of anxiety and working memory load were analysed using ANOVAs.
Our experiments with university students (Experiments 1 and 3) and secondary school students (Experiment 2) demonstrated that mathematical anxiety was a significant predictor of cognitive reflection, even after controlling for the effects of general mathematical knowledge (in Experiments 1), school mathematical achievement (in Experiment 2) and test anxiety (in Experiments 1-3). Furthermore, Experiment 3 showed that mathematical anxiety and burdening working memory resources with a secondary task had similar effects on cognitive reflection.
Given earlier findings that showed a close link between cognitive reflection, unbiased decisions and rationality, our results suggest that mathematical anxiety might be negatively related to individuals’ ability to make advantageous choices and good decisions.