Coding Strategies in Number Space: Memory Requirements Influence Spatial-Numerical Associations

Oliver Lindemann, Juan M. Abolafia, Jay Pratt, Harold Bekkering

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The tendency to respond faster with the left hand to relatively small numbersand faster with the right hand to relatively large numbers (SNARC effect) has beeninterpreted as an automatic association of spatial and numerical information. Weinvestigated in two experiments the impact of task-irrelevant memory representationson this effect. Participants memorized three Arabic digits describing a left-to-rightascending number sequence (e.g., 3-4-5), a descending sequence (e.g., 5-4-3) or adisordered sequence (e.g., 5-3-4) and indicated afterwards the parity status of a centrallypresented digit (i.e., 1, 2, 8, or 9) with a left/right keypress response. As indicated by thereaction times, the SNARC effect in the parity task was mediated by the codingrequirements of the memory tasks. That is, a SNARC effect was only present aftermemorizing ascending or disordered number sequences but disappeared after processingdescending sequences. Interestingly, the effects of the second task were only present ifall sequences within one experimental block had the same type of order. Taken together,our findings are inconsistent with the idea that spatial-numerical associations are theresult of an automatic and obligatory cognitive process but do suggest that codingstrategies might be responsible for the cognitive link between numbers and space.

Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology