Math anxiety is widely considered a potential barrier to success in STEM. Current thinking holds that math anxiety is directly linked to avoidance of and underperformance in STEM domains. However, past evidence supporting these claims is limited in important ways. Perhaps most crucially, it is possible that math anxiety predicts STEM outcomes merely as a proxy for poor math skills. Here, we

... [Show full abstract] tested the link between math anxiety and subsequent STEM outcomes by measuring math anxiety, math ability, and several covariates in 183 first-semester university students. We then tracked students’ STEM avoidance and achievement through four years at university via official academic transcripts. Results showed that math anxiety predicted both a reduction in how many STEM courses students took and, separately (i.e., controlling for one another), lower STEM grades. Crucially, these associations held after controlling for math ability (and other covariates). That math anxiety predicts math-related academic achievement independently of Math Ability suggests that, contrary to current thinking, math anxiety’s effects on academic performance likely operate via mechanisms other than negatively affecting math ability. Beyond this, we show evidence that math anxiety can account for associations between math ability and STEM outcomes, suggesting that past links between math ability and real-world outcomes may, in fact, be at least partially explainable by attitudes toward math. These findings provide clear impetus for developing and testing interventions that target math anxiety specifically and suggest that focusing on math ability without additional attention to math anxiety may fail to optimally boost STEM outcomes.