When Does the Story Matter? No Evidence for the Foregrounding Hypothesis in Math Story Problems


  • Sabrina M. Di Lonardo Burr Orcid
  • Jill Turner
  • Jesse Nietmann
  • Jo-Anne LeFevre Orcid


Math story problems are difficult for many solvers because comprehension of mathematical and linguistic content must occur simultaneously. Across two studies, we attempted to conceptually replicate and extend findings reported by Mattarella-Micke and Beilock (2010, https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.17.1.106) and Jarosz and Jaeger (2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3471). Mattarella-Micke and Beilock found that multiplication word problems in which an irrelevant number was associated with the protagonist of the problem (i.e., foregrounded in the text) were solved less accurately than problems in other conditions. Jarosz and Jaeger used similar materials but tested the more general inconsistent-operations hypothesis that association with the protagonist would interfere with multiplication whereas dissociation would interfere with division. They found partial support: When division problems were primed with dissociative scenarios, solvers made more errors, but they failed to replicate the associative findings for multiplication. In the present research, we conducted two studies (Ns = 205 and 359), in which we similarly manipulated whether irrelevant content was associated with or dissociated from the story protagonist. In these studies, we did not find support for either the foregrounding or inconsistent-operations hypotheses. Exploratory error analyses suggested that solvers’ errors were most often the result of calculation difficulties or inappropriate operation choices and were unrelated to the presence of associative or dissociative story elements. Our careful implementation of this manipulation and much greater power to detect effects suggests that the association manipulation in irrelevant text does not influence adults’ performance on simple math story problems.