Counting within the Subitizing Range: The Effect of Number of Distractors on the Perception of Subset Items

Liat Goldfarb, Sharon Levy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When exploring the mechanisms involved in perceiving numbers we must distinguish between two types of numbers: subset numbers (e.g., perceiving "2" when two plates and one cup are displayed on a table) and the total number of items (e.g., perceiving "3" objects in the previous example). Combining feature perception theories with number perception theories, the current paper explores the mechanisms involved in the perception of small numbers in feature-defined subsets. The paper introduces several theories for how subset items can be represented and examines an important prediction of those theories: Will the number of distractors affect the perception of small subset items? In two experiments, we found that the response time (RT) for counting small target items that differ from their distractors by a single feature was faster when there were few distractors compared to many distractors. This was found for different types of distractors: distractors within and outside the subitizing range. Only when distractors were organized in a specific pattern, allowing distractor grouping, the increase in the number of distractors did not affect target counting. The current study suggests that even when performing simple counting of subset targets, the enumeration process can begin only once the locations of the targets have been identified and the targets' shape is bound to these locations. This pre-counting procedure depends on the number of individual locations occupied by the distractors. These findings are further discussed within the context of the object file theory.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere74152
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
StatePublished - 16 Sep 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General
  • General Biochemistry,Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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