Higher attentional costs for numerosity estimation at high densities, Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.
Humans can estimate numerosity over a large range, but the precision with which they do so varies considerably over that range. For very small sets, within the subitizing range of up to about four items, estimation is rapid and errorless. For intermediate numerosities, errors vary directly with the numerosity, following Weber’s law, but for very high numerosities, with very dense patterns, thresholds continue to rise with the square root of numerosity. This suggests that three different mechanisms operate over the number range. In this study we provide further evidence for three distinct numerosity mechanisms, by studying their dependence on attentional resources. We measured discrimination thresholds over a wide range of numerosities, while manipulating attentional load with both visual and auditory dual tasks. The results show that attentional effects on thresholds vary over the number range. Both visual and auditory attentional loads strongly affect subitizing, much more than for larger numerosities. Attentional costs remain stable over the estimation range, then rise again for very dense patterns. These results reinforce the idea that numerosity is processed by three separates but probably overlapping systems.