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Beliefs about genetic influences on mathematics achievement: a cross-cultural comparison


The poor mathematics performance of children in the United States has become a topic of national concern. Numerous studies have shown that American children consistently perform worse than their counterparts in many parts of the world. In contrast, children in China, Japan, Taiwan, and other Asian countries consistently perform at or near the top in international comparisons. This paper examines possible causes of the poor performance of American children and the excellent performance of Asian children. Contrary to the beliefs of many Americans, the East Asian advantage in mathematics is probably not due to a genetically-based advantage in mathematics. Instead, differences inbeliefs about the role of genetics may be partly responsible. Asians strongly believe that effort plays a key role in determining a child's level of achievement, whereas Americans believe that innate ability is most important. In addition, despite the relatively poor performance of their children, American parents are substantiallymore satisfied with their children's performance than Asian parents. The American emphasis on the role of innate ability may have several consequences for children's achievement. For example, it may lead children to fear making errors and to expend less effort on mathematics than their Asian counterparts. As research on genetic influences on behavior, traits, and abilities increases scientists should be careful to ensure that the public understands that genetics does not directly determine the exact level of a child's potential achievement.

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Uttal, D.H. Beliefs about genetic influences on mathematics achievement: a cross-cultural comparison. Genetica 99, 165–172 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02259520

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Key words

  • beliefs
  • cultural differences
  • mathematics achievement
  • motivation