Verbal Working Memory Load Dissociates Common Indices of the Numerical Distance Effect: Implications for the Study of Numerical Cognition

Erin A. Maloney, Nathaniel Barr, Evan F. Risko, Jonathan A. Fugelsang


In four experiments, we explore the role that verbal WM plays in numerical comparison. Experiment 1 demonstrates that verbal WM load differentially impacts the two most common variants of numerical comparison tasks, evidenced by distinct modulation of the size of the numerical distance effect (NDE). Specifically, when comparing one Arabic digit to a standard, the size of the NDE increases as a function of increased verbal WM load; however, when comparing two simultaneously presented Arabic digits, the size of the NDE decreases (and here is eliminated) as a function of an increased verbal WM load. Experiment 2, using the same task structure but different stimuli (physical size judgments), provides support for the notion that this pattern of results is unique to tasks employing numerical stimuli. Experiment 3 demonstrates that the patterns observed in Experiment 1 are not an artifact of the stimulus pairs used. Experiment 4 provides evidence that the differing pattern of results observed between Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 are due to differences in stimuli (numerical vs. non-numerical) rather than to other differences between tasks. These results are discussed in terms of current theories of numerical comparison.


numerical distance effect; working memory; mental number line; numerical representation

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