Heterogeneity impairs numerical matching but not numerical ordering in preschool children


Address for correspondence: Jessica Cantlon, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Box 90999, Durham, NC 27708, USA; e-mail: jfc2@duke.edu


Do preschool children appreciate numerical value as an abstract property of a set of objects? We tested the influence of stimulus features such as size, shape, and color on preschool children's developing nonverbal numerical abilities. Children between 3 and 5 years of age were tested on their ability to estimate number when the sizes, shapes, and colors of the elements in an array were varied (heterogeneous condition) versus when they did not vary (homogeneous condition). One group of children was tested on an ordinal task in which the goal was to select the smaller of two arrays while another group of children was tested on a match-to-sample task in which the goal was to choose one of two visual arrays that matched the sample in number. Children performed above chance on both homogeneous and heterogeneous stimuli in both tasks. However, while children showed no impairment on heterogeneous relative to homogeneous arrays in the ordering task, performance was impaired by heterogeneity in the matching task. We suggest that nonverbal numerical abstraction occurs early in development, but specific task objectives may prevent children from engaging in numerical abstraction.