People who feel anxious about certain types of thinking, such as creativity, math, or spatial reasoning, tend to be less interested in pursuing careers or activities that they believe involve that specific type of thinking, according to new research published in Scientific Reports.
“The main reason we were interested in doing this study was to start to get a better sense of just how much of an influence feeling anxious about specific types of thinking might have on people,” explained lead author Richard J. Daker, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University.
“Our rationale was that if we found consistent evidence that feeling anxious about a specific type of thinking — mathematical thinking, spatial thinking, creative thinking, etc. — was linked to a tendency to want to avoid situations where people thought that type of thinking might be necessary, then it could be the case that these feelings of anxiety might be enough to have a big influence on people’s lives, partially dictating how people spend their time and even what career paths they consider.”
“We found that this was the case – feeling particularly anxious about a given type of thinking was consistently associated with a tendency to want to avoid situations and careers that involved the type of thinking in question. These feelings of anxiety about types of thinking may shape really important elements of people’s lives.”
“To us, this elevates the importance of these ‘cognition-specific anxieties,’ as we call them, and our hope is that the findings motivate other researchers to join us in trying to better understand and ultimately find ways to combat these cognition-specific anxieties.”
For their study, the researchers recruited participants from two sources: Georgetown University’s undergraduate participant pool and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk). They collected data from 331 participants, who had an average age of 30.
The researchers gave the participants several questionnaires, including measures of creativity anxiety, math anxiety, spatial anxiety, and general trait anxiety. They also asked the participants to rate their interest in 48 different careers and 48 job-related activities, as well as how much they thought each of those careers and activities involved creative thinking, math, and spatial reasoning.
To measure creativity anxiety, Daker and his colleagues used the Creativity Anxiety Scale, which includes 16 items that ask participants to rate how anxious they would feel in situations that require creative thinking. They also included non-creativity anxiety control items that presented similar situations without the need to be creative, which allowed them to control for anxiety towards non-creative aspects of the situations presented.
Math anxiety was measured using the Single-Item Math Anxiety scale, which asked participants to rate their anxiety towards math on a scale from 1 to 10. Spatial anxiety was measured using the Spatial Anxiety Scale, specifically the Mental Manipulation subscale, which gauges anxiety towards mentally manipulating objects. The researchers also included a measure of general trait anxiety using the trait subscale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory .
Daker and his colleagues developed a framework that focused on participants’ perceptions of how much different careers or activities involved specific types of thinking. They found consistent evidence that higher anxiety in a domain (creativity, math, or spatial reasoning) predicted a lower affinity coefficient in that domain, meaning that individuals were less interested in pursuits the more they were perceived as involving that type of thinking. This suggests that feeling anxious about particular types of thinking may play a significant role in shaping our interests.
“One of the big takeaways we had from this study is that there are probably a lot of people out there who don’t even consider specific career paths because they have a perception that the career involves a type of thinking they feel anxious about,” Daker told PsyPost.
This is a shame, since in this study we also found evidence that people had very different perceptions from each other about how much the same career involves a type of thinking. People differed wildly, for instance, on how much they thought being a biologist involved creative thinking.”
“To us, this means that a lot of people probably don’t have the best sense of what certain careers actually involve, and as a result they may be making career decisions based on faulty information,” Daker added. “Based on our findings, my advice to anyone considering different career options would be to make sure to look into a career fully and talk to people who are in it before deciding to rule it out – you may have written off a career that would actually be a great fit for you based on an inaccurate understanding of what the job actually involves.”
The study provides new insights into how anxiety about different types of thinking can affect what kinds of jobs or activities people are interested in. However, the methodology only measured what people said they were interested in. The researchers suggests that future research should examine how these types of anxieties influence behavior.
“Moving forward, researchers could use this affinity coefficient framework, in addition to the general principle that perceptions can shape what those high in cognition-specific anxieties would wish to avoid, to begin building a more comprehensive understanding of links between cognition-specific anxieties and avoidance across a wide array of both anxiety and pursuit types,” the researchers concluded. “Doing so, we believe, could allow for a more complete understanding of the circumstances in which people who feel anxious about a particular type of thinking will engage in avoidance.”
The study, “Evidence for avoidance tendencies linked to anxiety about specific types of thinking“, was authored by Richard J. Daker, Michael S. Slipenkyj, Adam E. Green, and Ian M. Lyons.