• Psychology;
  • Reasoning;
  • Human experimentation;
  • Mathematical cognition;
  • Mathematical modeling;
  • Number line estimation


Despite their importance in public discourse, numbers in the range of 1 million to 1 trillion are notoriously difficult to understand. We examine magnitude estimation by adult Americans when placing large numbers on a number line and when qualitatively evaluating descriptions of imaginary geopolitical scenarios. Prior theoretical conceptions predict a log-to-linear shift: People will either place numbers linearly or will place numbers according to a compressive logarithmic or power-shaped function (Barth & Paladino, 2011; Siegler & Opfer, 2003). While about half of people did estimate numbers linearly over this range, nearly all the remaining participants placed 1 million approximately halfway between 1 thousand and 1 billion, but placed numbers linearly across each half, as though they believed that the number words “thousand, million, billion, trillion” constitute a uniformly spaced count list. Participants in this group also tended to be optimistic in evaluations of largely ineffective political strategies, relative to linear number-line placers. The results indicate that the surface structure of number words can heavily influence processes for dealing with numbers in this range, and it can amplify the possibility that analogous surface regularities are partially responsible for parallel phenomena in children. In addition, these results have direct implications for lawmakers and scientists hoping to communicate effectively with the public.