Alerting cues enhance the subitizing process

Yarden Gliksman, Noam Weinbach, Avishai Henik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Enumeration of elements differs as a function of their range. Subitizing (quantities 1–4) is considered to be an accurate and quick process with reaction times minimally affected by the number of presented elements within its range. In contrast, small estimation (range of 5–9 elements exposed briefly) is a less precise linear process. Subitizing was consider to be a pre-attentive process for many years. However, recent studies found that when attentional resources were occupied elsewhere, the subitizing process was impaired. In the current study, we examined whether subitizing can be facilitated by improving engagement of attention. Specifically, brief alerting cues that increase attentional engagement were presented in half of the trials during enumeration tasks. In Experiment 1, participants were required to enumerate dots presented in random arrays within the subitizing or small estimation range. Alerting facilitated enumeration of quantities in the subitizing range, but not in the small estimation range. We suggested that the benefit of alerting on the subitizing process was achieved via enhancement of global processing, a process that was previously associated with both alerting and subitizing. In Experiment 2, we provided direct evidence for this hypothesis by demonstrating that when global processing was used for items in the small estimation range (i.e., presenting quantities in a canonical array), a subitizing-like pattern was revealed in quantities beyond the subitizing range.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-145
Number of pages7
JournalActa Psychologica
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 295644 .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Authors


  • Alertness
  • Enumeration
  • Global processing
  • Pattern recognition
  • Subitizing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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