Subitizing but not estimation of numerosity requires attentional resources,J Vis, 6 (10), 20.
The numerosity of small numbers of objects, up to about four, can be rapidly appraised without error, a phenomenon known as subitizing. Larger numbers can either be counted, accurately but slowly, or estimated, rapidly but with errors. There has been some debate as to whether subitizing uses the same or different mechanisms than those of higher numerical ranges and whether it requires attentional resources. We measure subjects’ accuracy and precision in making rapid judgments of numerosity for target numbers spanning the subitizing and estimation ranges while manipulating the attentional load, both with a spatial dual task and the “attentional blink” dual-task paradigm. The results of both attentional manipulations were similar. In the high-load attentional condition, Weber fractions were similar in the subitizing (2-4) and estimation (5-7) ranges (10-15%). In the low-load and single-task condition, Weber fractions substantially improved in the subitizing range, becoming nearly error-free, while the estimation range was relatively unaffected. The results show that the mechanisms operating over the subitizing and estimation ranges are not identical. We suggest that pre-attentive estimation mechanisms works at all ranges, but in the subitizing range, attentive mechanisms also come into play.