Saturday, 9 April 2016

Is empathising rather than systemising linked to maths achievement?

"Contrary to our hypothesis, we found no relationship between systemizing and math achievement after controlling for domain general abilities and no relationship between the systemizing brain type (greater discrepancy between systemizing and empathizing) and math achievement."

That quote taken from the study published by Emily Escovar and colleagues [1] (open-access available here) provides some blogging fodder today. Based on some ideas proposed in autism research circles that "mathematics is purported to be an example of an ability requiring systemizing" and some rather sweeping claims about facets of autism being explained "as a high tendency to systemize" researchers set about testing the idea that being a good systemiser might make for good maths ability. I might add that previous research has demonstrated that a diagnosis of autism (and comorbidities) does not necessarily equal 'maths genius' (see here).

Drawing on data from a cohort of 112 "typically developing children" (authors words not mine) aged between 7 and 12 years old, researchers set about assessing various functions. "Intelligence was assessed using the full-scale intelligence quotient (FSIQ) of the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI)." Various facets of maths ability were also included for study as a function of the use of "the Woodcock Johnson III, Form A" and specifically "the Calculation, Math Fluency, and Applied Problems subtests as measures of math achievement." Researchers also sensibly included a measure of maths anxiety - the Scale for Early Mathematics Anxiety - as part of their protocol. Alongside the use of the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) to provide some background on presented autistic-like traits, the main event was the that: "The primary guardian of each child completed the Combined Empathy Quotient-Child (EQ-C) and Systemizing Quotient-Child (SQ-C)."

Results: from the point of view of proponents of the whole systemising-empathising thing with gender in mind, there was some good news: "There was a marginally significant gender difference on SQ-C, with boys scoring higher than girls. In contrast, boys and girls differed significantly on EQ-C with girls scoring higher than boys." This follows other work in this area (see here). But it was not all one-way traffic as per the opening statement to this post and the conclusion that "SQ-C is not an independent predictor of math achievement in children."

One particularly interesting detail did emerge from the study findings: "results demonstrate that empathizing is a previously unknown predictor of math skills in TD [typically developing] children." This was specifically based on the results of the Calculation skills subtest but was independent of gender (as an effect) and neither was explained by maths anxiety scores. Some further analysis taking into account SRS scores was undertaken and the idea that "children with higher social abilities tended to have lower math skills" emerged. Finally, just in case you might think that 'autistic behaviours' might be the driving force between empathising and maths ability, the authors have something to say about this too: "the link between empathizing and math achievement may be related to social awareness and cognition rather than autistic behaviors."

I am cautious that the Escovar findings do require replication and further investigation before any grand claims are made about autism, empathising/systemising and maths ability; not least because of the cohort used and, although a decent sized number, the requirement for even greater participant numbers. That other categories of behaviour can seemingly affect maths performance should also not be forgotten [2]. That being said, I'd like to think that there could be some really important issues to come from such work if the relationships proposed holds out. Not least is the idea that reinforcing empathising skills *might* have a knock-on effect for something like maths ability and perhaps equally important, the possibility of a downside to being a classroom 'social butterfly' from a maths perspective...


[1] Escovar E. et al. The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory, Social Abilities, and Mathematical Achievement in Children. Sci Rep. 2016 Mar 14;6:23011.

[2] May T. et al. The role of attention in the academic attainment of children with autism spectrum disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2013 Sep;43(9):2147-58.

---------- Escovar E, Rosenberg-Lee M, Uddin LQ, & Menon V (2016). The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory, Social Abilities, and Mathematical Achievement in Children. Scientific reports, 6 PMID: 26972835