Dividing Attention Increases Operational Momentum

Koleen McCrink, Timothy Hubbard


When adding or subtracting two quantities, adults often compute an estimated outcome that is larger or smaller, respectively, than the actual outcome, a bias referred to as “operational momentum”. The effects of attention on operational momentum were investigated. Participants viewed a display in which two arrays of objects were added, or one array was subtracted from another array, and judged whether a subsequent outcome (probe) array contained the correct or incorrect number of objects. In a baseline condition, only the arrays to be added or subtracted were viewed. In divided attention conditions, participants simultaneously viewed a sequence of colors or shapes, and judged which color (a non-spatial judgment) or shape (a spatial judgment) was repeated. Operational momentum occurred in all conditions, but was higher in divided attention conditions than in the baseline condition, primarily for addition problems. This pattern suggests that dividing attention, rather than decreasing operational momentum by decreasing attentional shifts, actually increased operational momentum. These results are consistent with a heightened use of arithmetic heuristics under conditions of divided attention.


operational momentum; spatial attention; number; space; heuristics

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