rebelling against low expectations

Not a Math Person? Think Again.


(QUARTZ) — “I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today.

The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career.

Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children — the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree.

Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories.

Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught.

But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high school math, inborn talent is just much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic.

Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described.

For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in mathematics.)

Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence:

  1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
  2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

They found that students who agreed that “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” got higher grades. But as Richard Nisbett recounts in his book Intelligence and How to Get It, they did something even more remarkable:

Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process.

The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.)

But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.” It is no picnic going through life believing you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.

For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way—is believing a lie.

IQ itself can improve with hard work.

Because the truth may be hard to believe, here is a set of links about some excellent books to convince you that most people can become smart in many ways, if they work hard enough:

So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive.

But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched.

Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.

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Photo courtesy of UGL_UIUC and Flickr Creative Commons.

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About the author

Miles Kimball and Noah Smith

wrote this article for and are not affiliated with Miles is an economics professor at the University of Michigan. He writes about economics, politics and religion. Noah is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. He runs a blog called Noahpinion.


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  • As someone who used to spout “I’m not a math person,” – I am now a math teacher who encounters this attitude in students (and their parents) every day. I’ve learned that it is practice and hard work that will bring about success in math – just like any other subject. Piano students don’t say, “I’m not a music person” just because they can’t sit down and sight-read. They know that mastery comes from practice!

  • That’s so funny, I used to always say “I’m not a math person” but then a few months ago i began the think, “Why on earth have i thought that all my life?” It’s funny this article should pop up! There’s really no reason i thought like that, except that i was surrounded by everyone else saying that. Plus, math isn’t really interesting to me. I didn’t get the best grades in math either, but i really think that was mainly because i didn’t believe i was a math person, so i didn’t try that hard.
    I don’t want to pursue an degree related to math, but i know that my major will require a couple of math classes. I’m going to use this fresh perspective i have now and just do my best, without thinking that I’m not a math person, and see what happens (; I really think I’ll do much better than i did in high school!

    • That’s great, Hannah! I’m glad this article popped up at just the right time. I’d encourage you to take this mindset with you into all your classes and endeavors. Hard work pays off in EVERYTHING. God bless!

  • Haha, That is so funny. I literally was JUST talking to a friend about a math problem, and then decided to check your blog. This popped up, and i was like, ‘What do you want me to learn from this God?’ Crazy. Thanks. 🙂

  • Ahh, I really needed this encouragement today as I was reflecting on this past half semester that I have been struggling in College Algebra. I was stressing and praying about this right as it popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. God is so good! Thanks guys!

    • That’s the ticket, Joshua. The point isn’t that math is easy, but that anyone can be good at it if they work hard (and believe they *can* be good at it).

      And of course, this applies to every other endeavor as well. There may be the occasional prodigy, but for the other 99.9% of us, being good at something happens because we invested time and effort into it.

      • Well that also applies to that other 1%. For if you have an issue or problem It does not mean you you can’t try your hardest at something.

    • Okay, well, I spoke too soon. I mean that there are some people who hate math from the depths of their being, not that some people can’t do it at all if they break their backs over it. I, the world’s greatest math-hater, never got less than a B in high-school.

  • I can see why the students would cry. I failed a math course in grade 11 with a 42% but i redid the course and now have in the low 90’s.
    But the fact that I never tried in the first place–that i believed I didn’t have to because I ‘didn’t have it in me’, makes me very upset.
    This helps dispel that lie, but does anyone have practical advice for how to apply the truth without falling back into old patterns (for me its laziness born and fueled by the lie that ‘you can’t do it anyways’/ ‘you don’t have the brain’ etc.)?

  • My experience, as someone who is a “math person” is slightly different. What I have found is that most people have an amount of raw talent that allows them to grasp concepts easily until a certain level, then handwork kicks in. For example, one friend and I both got A’s in Trig without studying, but in precalc, he needed to study but I did not (except for a few small topics). By the time we reached calculus however, both of us needed to study, but I need to study about half as much. Both of us have had straight A’s
    What my experience suggests is that there is a certain threshold where you need to study and work hard to continue to succeed, but for everyone that is different. When I needed to study for calculus, I had a harder time managing my time, while my friend found it easy because he had been in that good habit for over a year.
    Of course, this is only one example, but take it for what its worth. Its really interesting how we were all given different natural talents

  • This post is very encouraging!!!!

    During high school, I always think myself as a musician alone and not a math person. Now, that I’m studying electrical engineering, I realized that I can also solve hard math problems to the point I can perfect quizzes. I just need to arrange my priorities, do some time management, and have a study habit. Nothing is impossible with God.

    (I’m currently planning to build pickup and efx units for my violin using my maths and other learnings)

rebelling against low expectations

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