Math + Good Posture = Better Scores

Summary: A new study reveals sitting up straight can improve your performance in math. Slumping, researchers say, is a defensive posture that can trigger old negative associations.

Source: San Francisco State University.

If you’ve ever felt like a deer in the headlights before taking a math test or speaking before a large group of people, you could benefit from a simple change in posture. As part of a new study by researchers at San Francisco State University, 125 college students were tested to see how well they could perform simple math — subtracting 7 from 843 sequentially for 15 seconds — while either slumped over or sitting up straight with shoulders back and relaxed. Fifty-six percent of the students reported finding it easier to perform the math in the upright position.

“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” said Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.” Before the study began, students filled out an anonymous questionnaire asking them to rate their anxiety levels while taking exams and performing math; they also described any physical symptoms of stress they experienced during test taking.

According to co-author Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey, slumping over is a defensive posture that can trigger old negative memories in the body and brain. While the students without math anxiety did not report as great a benefit from better posture, they did find that doing math while slumped over was somewhat more difficult.

Peper and Harvey say these findings about body position can help people prepare for many different types of performance under stress, not just math tests. Athletes, musicians and public speakers can all benefit from better posture prior to and during their performance. “You have a choice,” said Peper. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”

That empowerment could be particularly helpful to students facing the challenge called “stereotype threat,” said Lauren Mason, one of the paper’s authors and a recent SF State graduate. A first-generation college student, Mason can identify with such students, who experience fear and insecurity because of a belief by others — which can become internalized — that they won’t do as well at math. Mason said she has benefitted personally from using a more empowered posture before taking difficult tests, including math. She believes that adopting a more confident posture could help other first-generation students as well as women entering science and math, who often battle stereotype threat, too.

a class room
Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey leads a group of students in a posture and math experiment. image is credited to San Francisco State University.

“I always felt insecure about my math abilities even though I excelled at other subjects,” said Mason, who helped design the experiment in the study. “You build a relationship with [math] so early — as early as elementary school. You can carry that negative self-talk throughout your life, impacting your perception of yourself.”

Mason said the study results demonstrate a simple way to improve many aspects of life, especially when stress is involved: “The way we carry ourselves and interact in space influences not only how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Lisa Owens Viani – San Francisco State University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is San Francisco State University
Original Research: Abstract for “Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response” by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey, Lauren Mason, I-Mei Lin in NeuroRegulation. Published August 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]San Francisco State University”Math + Good Posture = Better Scores.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 4 August 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]San Francisco State University(2018, August 4). Math + Good Posture = Better Scores. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved August 4, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]San Francisco State University”Math + Good Posture = Better Scores.” (accessed August 4, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response

This study investigates posture on mental math performance. 125 students (M = 23.5 years) participated as part of a class activity. Half the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat in a slouched position and were asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. They then reversed the positions before repeating the math subtraction task beginning at 834. They rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme). The math test was rated significantly more difficult while sitting slouched (M = 6.2) than while sitting erect (M = 4.9) ANOVA [F(1,243) = 17.06, p < 0.001]. Participants with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores (TAMDBOS) rated the math task significantly more difficult in the slouched position (M = 7.0) as compared to the erect position (M = 4.8) ANOVA [F(1,75) = 17.85, p < 0.001]. Tor the participants with the lowest 30% TAMDBOS, there was no significant difference between slouched (M=4.90) and erect positions (M = 4.0). The participants with the highest TAMDBOS experienced significantly more somatic symptoms as compared with the lowest TAMDBOS. Discussed are processes such as stereotypic threat associated with a ‘defense reaction’ by which posture can affect mental math and inhibit abstract thinking. Moreover, clinicians who work with students who have learning difficulty may improve outcome if they include posture changes.

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