Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Effects of Visual Pet Stimuli on Stress and Math Performance

Academic journal article College Student Journal

The Effects of Visual Pet Stimuli on Stress and Math Performance

Article excerpt


Math anxiety impairs mathematical performance even in people who are capable of completing the mathematical operations. Pets have been shown to both reduce stress and improve performance during mathematical tasks, and thus may be used to alleviate math anxiety.

We tested the effects of visual pet stimuli on stress and performance during timed sets of high school level math problems. The math problems were presented in sets with either images of pets, images of desks, or color blocks displayed vertically along the left hand side of the page. Participants reported the lowest levels of stress for the math problems presented with the pet images which confirmed our hypothesis that self-reported stress would be lowest for the math set presented with the visual pet stimuli. Although there was no concurrent increase in performance, the data suggest that the presence of a comforting stimulus could be an aid to help students relieve math anxiety.

Keywords: pets, stress, math anxiety, mathematical task performance


Math anxiety can be described as a negative emotional reaction to math that can lead to impaired performance on mathematical tasks. Brunye et al. (2013) suggested that this impaired performance can be explained by the attentional control theory wherein math anxiety occupies working memory capacity to leave insufficient cognitive resources for mathematical processing. Math anxiety leads to math avoidance both throughout one's academic career and in adult life (Brunye et al., 2013; Legg & Locker, 2009; Lyons & Beilock, 2012). Students with math anxiety tend to avoid STEM classes, and adults with math anxiety tend to avoid dealing with math related problems such as financial issues. Math anxiety seems to be learned (Geist, 2010). Culturally held stereotypes as well as the attitudes towards math held by influential adults all seem to foster math anxiety. Current intervention strategies for math anxiety seek to reduce anxiety by introducing humor during math lessons (Ford et al., 2012), utilizing individualized lesson plans (Jansen et al., 2013), and teaching anxious students how to use mindfulness-based stress reduction breathing strategies (Brunye et al., 2013). Although these inventions have been moderately successful, their implementation may be impractical in large public school settings.

Pet stimuli may be a valid source of stress reduction in people with math anxiety. Pets have long been touted as being beneficial to their owners' health and well-being. Mainstream media, including medical advising websites such as WebMD (Fields, 2013), have taken for fact that pet ownership is linked to improved health and mood, a phenomenon labeled as the "pet effect." Still, not all studies confirm this finding. Sraatman, Hanson, Endenburg and Mol (1997) did not find any short term differences in participants' blood pressure as they completed a stressful task in the presence of a dog. Still, as Fields (2013) noted, commonly referenced benefits attributed to pet ownership include improved cardiovascular health and mood.

Pet owners tend to have a muted stress response as compared to non-pet owners. Children had lower blood pressure while reading out loud to a dog as compared to reading out loud to an adult (Friedmann, Katcher, Thomas, Lynch, & Messent, 1983). Women performing mental math had reduced stress responses as measured by blood pressure when they performed the math in front of a dog as compared to performing the math in front of their best same-sex friend (Allen, Blascovich, Tomaka, & Kelsey, 1991) or in front of their spouse or significant other (Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002). In a revolutionary study where pet ownership was randomly assigned amongst a very controlled sample of middle-aged stockbrokers with similar health profiles, stockbrokers in the pet ownership condition had significantly muted stress responses when presented with a stressful task as compared to stockbrokers in the no pet condition (Allen, ShykofF, & Izzo, 2001). …

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