Sit Up Straight! The Effect of Posture on Math Performance
Every child has had “Sit up straight! Don’t slouch!” barked at them at least once. While it may come across as an arbitrary demand for attention (and was certainly met with loud sighs and eye-rolls), the request for proper posture may have practical implications, both in and out of the classroom. According to researchers from San Francisco State University and Kaohsiung Medical University, upright and correct spinal alignment can lead to improvements in physical health, positive thinking, and – you guessed it – math performance.
Poor mathematic performance is linked to threat response, the body’s instinctual reactions to perceived danger. While a math exam may not pose a physical threat (papercuts aside), it can be the source of emotional damage, such as feelings of inferiority, pressure to live up to a societal standard, and public embarrassment. These social-evaluative threat (SET) responses come with serious physical and cognitive consequences. SET-induced stress has been associated with poor immune system efficiency, impaired working memory, and dendrite shrinkage (a key cellular component of brain communication), leading to decreased cognitive performance in a number of tasks, not just mathematics. This specific cause-effect relationship can trap students in a math-anxiety spiral; SET-induced stress decreases math performance, decreased math performance increases SET-induced stress, and so on.
As bad as it may sound, math anxiety is not an academic death sentence! Interventions such as positive self-talk, cognitive behavioral therapy, and stress-management have been linked to better cognitive performance in students with test-based anxiety. These interventions encourage students to be mindful of their physical reactions to good and poor performance, namely posture. Body position has been shown to correlate with emotion and health, with slouched positions related to defeat, hopelessness, and poor well-being and upright posture coinciding with feelings of confidence, success, and improved functioning.
Peper et al. (2018) wanted to know if posture alone could influence mental math aptitude. The researchers surveyed 125 college students, asking questions about math exam-based anxiety and symptoms. The students were then assigned to sit in either a slouched or upright position and instructed to perform a mental math task. Students then assumed the opposite posture (slouched to upright or upright to slouched) and performed a different but similarly difficult mental math task. After the exercise, participants rated their level of performance difficulty in each position. For students with greater test-based anxiety, the slouched position related to greater mathematic difficulty. Students with no performance stress, however, experienced little to no difference in difficulty between positions.
Does this mean posture holds all the answers to test-taking anxiety? Unfortunately, no. However, students with math anxiety may benefit from periodically assessing and correcting their posture, while both studying for and taking tests. Instances of poor posture may be the body’s response to test-taking anxiety. Identifying and correcting this posture can interrupt the body’s natural defensive mechanisms, signaling to the brain that a threat is not present and making positive thoughts and memories more accessible. These periodic “self-checks” can also be used for biofeedback, identifying good opportunities for implementing other interventions, such as positive self-talk. Furthermore, poor posture is associated with poor health, and poor health leads to poor cognition. Even when testing anxiety is not an issue, posture is still important, both in and out of the classroom.
With that being said, are you sitting up straight?
Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I. (2018). Do Better in Math: How Your Body Posture May Change Stereotype Threat Response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74.