Guido Marco Cicchini, Giovanni Anobile, Eleonora Chelli, Roberto Arrighi, David Burr

Uncertainty and Prior Assumptions, Rather Than Innate Logarithmic Encoding, Explain Nonlinear Number-to-Space Mapping

Psychological Science, 09567976211034501

https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211034501 Download

Mapping number to space is natural and spontaneous but often nonveridical, showing a clear compressive nonlinearity that is thought to reflect intrinsic logarithmic encoding of numerical values. We asked 78 adult participants to map dot arrays onto a number line across nine trials. Combining participant data, we confirmed that on the first trial, mapping was heavily compressed along the number line, but it became more linear across trials. Responses were well described by logarithmic compression but also by a parameter-free Bayesian model of central tendency, which quantitatively predicted the relationship between nonlinearity and number acuity. To experimentally test the Bayesian hypothesis, we asked 90 new participants to complete a color-line task in which they mapped noise-perturbed color patches to a “color line.” When there was more noise at the high end of the color line, the mapping was logarithmic, but it became exponential with noise at the low end. We conclude that the nonlinearity of both number and color mapping reflects contextual Bayesian inference processes rather than intrinsic logarithmic encoding.