The Role of Visual Information in Numerosity Estimation
by Titia Gebuis, Bert Reynvoet
Mainstream theory suggests that the approximate number system supports our non-symbolic number abilities (e.g. estimating or comparing different sets of items). It is argued that this system can extract number independently of the visual cues present in the stimulus (diameter, aggregate surface, etc.). However, in a recent report we argue that this might not be the case. We showed that participants combined information from different visual cues to derive their answers. While numerosity comparison requires a rough comparison of two sets of items (smaller versus larger), numerosity estimation requires a more precise mechanism. It could therefore be that numerosity estimation, in contrast to numerosity comparison, might rely on the approximate number system. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a numerosity estimation experiment. We controlled for the visual cues according to current standards: each single visual property was not informative about numerosity. Nevertheless, the results reveal that participants were influenced by the visual properties of the dot arrays. They gave a larger estimate when the dot arrays consisted of dots with, on average, a smaller diameter, aggregate surface or density but a larger convex hull. The reliance on visual cues to estimate numerosity suggests that the existence of an approximate number system that can extract numerosity independently of the visual cues is unlikely. Instead, we propose that humans estimate numerosity by weighing the different visual cues present in the stimuli.
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