Number symbols are processed more automatically than nonsymbolic numerical magnitudes: Findings from a Symbolic-Nonsymbolic Stroop task
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Are number symbols (e.g., 3) and numerically equivalent quantities (e.g., •••) processed similarly or distinctly? If symbols and quantities are processed similarly then processing one format should activate the processing of the other. To experimentally probe this prediction, we assessed the processing of symbols and quantities using a Stroop-like paradigm. Participants (NStudy1 = 80, NStudy2 = 63) compared adjacent arrays of symbols (e.g., 4444 vs 333) and were instructed to indicate the side containing either the greater quantity of symbols (nonsymbolic task) or the numerically larger symbol (symbolic task). The tasks included congruent trials, where the greater symbol and quantity appeared on the same side (e.g. 333 vs. 4444), incongruent trials, where the greater symbol and quantity appeared on opposite sides (e.g. 3333 vs. 444), and neutral trials, where the irrelevant dimension was the same across both sides (e.g. 3333 vs. 333 for nonsymbolic; 333 vs. 444 for symbolic). The numerical distance between stimuli was systematically varied, and quantities in the subitizing and counting range were analyzed together and independently. Participants were more efficient comparing symbols and ignoring quantities, than comparing quantities and ignoring symbols. Similarly, while both symbols and quantities influenced each other as the irrelevant dimension, symbols influenced the processing of quantities more than quantities influenced the processing of symbols, especially for quantities in the counting rage. Additionally, symbols were less influenced by numerical distance than quantities, when acting as the relevant and irrelevant dimension. These findings suggest that symbols are processed differently and more automatically than quantities.