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Semantic alignment and number comparison

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Are the quantity representations activated by Arabic digits influenced by semantic context? We developed a novel paradigm to examine semantic alignment effects (e.g., Bassok et al. in J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 34:343–352, 2008) in number comparison. A horizontal word pair (either less more or few many) appeared for 480 ms to prime either relative magnitude (less more) or quantity (few many). Then a horizontal pair of single digits that were either successors (near) or differed by at least four (far) appeared above the word pair. Participants indicated verbally whether or not the word and digit pairs were congruent with respect to left-to-right ascending or descending relative magnitude. The RT advantage for far number pairs compared to near pairs (the distance effect) was greater with magnitude primes (81 ms) than quantity primes (17 ms), demonstrating a semantic alignment effect. This effect disappeared in Experiment 2 in which participants received identical stimuli but named the larger of the two digits and were free to ignore the primes. Nonetheless, mean RT in Experiment 2 was faster with prime and target pairs both ascending or both descending, but only with quantity primes. This prime-dependent order-congruity effect suggests that semantic alignment with respect to numerical order affected number comparison in Experiment 2. The results thereby demonstrate that number comparison exhibits task-dependent semantic alignment effects and recruits distinct numerical representations as a function of semantic context (e.g., Cohen Kadosh and Walsh in Behav Brain Sci 32:313–373, 2009).

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    We explored analyses that treated reported use of the strategy “anchor on many or more” (n = 12) versus all other reported strategies (n = 12) as a between-participants factor. These analyses did not present any significant effects associated with this strategy classification.


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This research was supported by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank Arron Metcalfe for helpful comments on an earlier version of the paper.

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Correspondence to Jamie I. D. Campbell.

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Campbell, J.I.D., Sacher, S.G. Semantic alignment and number comparison. Psychological Research 76, 119–128 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-011-0331-x

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  • Word Pair
  • Distance Effect
  • Incongruent Trial
  • Prime Type
  • Congruent Trial