Domain-specific and domain-general changes in children's development of number comparison


Address for correspondence: Daniel Ansari, Department of Psychology, University of Western Ontario, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5C2; e-mail:


The numerical distance effect (inverse relationship between numerical distance and reaction time in relative number comparison tasks) has frequently been used to characterize the mental representation of number. The size of the distance effect decreases over developmental time. However, it is unclear whether this reduction simply reflects developmental changes in domain-general speed of processing and whether it is specific to numerical compared with non-numerical magnitude. To examine these open questions, we conducted a cross-sectional study with 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old children as well as adult college students. Participants performed comparisons on Arabic numerals, arrays of squares, squares of varying luminance and bars of varying height. To control for general age-related changes in reaction time, a measure of speed of processing was used as a covariate in the analysis. A significant developmental decrease in the distance effect was found across numerical and non-numerical comparison tasks over and above general changes in processing speed. However, this change was not found to differ as a function of format. These data suggest that developmental changes in the distance effect are reflective of changes in a domain-general comparison process, rather than domain-specific developmental changes in number representations. However, analysis of overall reaction times revealed significantly greater developmental changes for numerical relative to non-numerical comparison tasks. These findings highlight the importance of taking multiple measures into account when characterizing developmental changes in numerical magnitude processing. Implications for theories of numerical cognition and its development are discussed.