Uncanny Sums and Products May Prompt “Wise Choices”: Semantic Misalignment and Numerical Judgments

Ethan C. Brown, Michèle M. M. Mazzocco, Luke F. Rinne, Noah S. Scanlon


Automatized arithmetic can interfere with numerical judgments, and semantic misalignment may diminish this interference. We gave 92 adults two numerical priming tasks that involved semantic misalignment. We found that misalignment either facilitated or reversed arithmetic interference effects, depending on misalignment type. On our number matching task, digit pairs (as primes for sums) appeared with nouns that were either categorically aligned and concrete (e.g., pigs, goats), categorically misaligned and concrete (e.g., eels, webs), or categorically
misaligned concrete and intangible (e.g., goats, tactics). Next, participants were asked whether a target digit matched either member of the previously presented digit pair. Participants were slower to reject sum vs. neutral targets on aligned/concrete and misaligned/concrete trials, but unexpectedly slower to reject neutral versus sum targets on misaligned/concrete-intangible trials. Our sentence verification task also elicited unexpected facilitation effects. Participants read a cue sentence that contained two digits, then evaluated whether a subsequent target statement was true or false. When target statements included the product of the two preceding digits, this inhibited accepting correct targets and facilitated rejecting incorrect targets, although only when semantic context did not support arithmetic. These novel findings identify a potentially facilitative role of arithmetic in semantically misaligned contexts and highlight the complex role of contextual factors in numerical processing.


priming, arithmetic, context, semantic alignment

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Copyright (c) 2016 Brown, Mazzocco, Rinne, Scanlon