Spatial Biases in Approximate Arithmetic Are Subject to Sequential Dependency Effects and Dissociate From Attentional Biases


  • Maria Glaser Orcid
  • André Knops Orcid


The notion that mental arithmetic is associated with shifts of spatial attention along a spatially organised mental number representation has received empirical support from three lines of research. First, participants tend to overestimate results of addition and underestimate those of subtraction problems in both exact and approximate formats. This has been termed the operational momentum (OM) effect. Second, participants are faster in detecting right-sided targets presented in the course of addition problems and left-sided targets in subtraction problems (attentional bias). Third, participants are biased toward choosing right-sided response alternatives to indicate the results of addition problems and left-sided response alternatives for subtraction problems (Spatial Association Of Responses [SOAR] effect). These effects potentially have their origin in operation-specific shifts of attention along a spatially organised mental number representation: rightward for addition and leftward for subtraction. Using a lateralised target detection task during the calculation phase of non-symbolic additions and subtractions, the current study measured the attentional focus, the OM and SOAR effects. In two experiments, we replicated the OM and SOAR effects but did not observe operation-specific biases in the lateralised target-detection task. We describe two new characteristics of the OM effect: First, a time-resolved, block-wise analysis of both experiments revealed sequential dependency effects in that the OM effect builds up over the course of the experiment, driven by the increasing underestimation of subtraction over time. Second, the OM effect was enhanced after arithmetic operation repetition compared to trials where arithmetic operation switched from one trial to the next. These results call into question the operation-specific attentional biases as the sole generator of the observed effects and point to the involvement of additional, potentially decisional processes that operate across trials.