Comparing performance in discrete and continuous comparison tasks

Tali Leibovich, Avishai Henik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The approximate number system (ANS) theory suggests that all magnitudes, discrete (i.e., number of items) or continuous (i.e., size, density, etc.), are processed by a shared system and comply with Weber's law. The current study reexamined this notion by comparing performance in discrete (comparing numerosities of dot arrays) and continuous (comparisons of area of squares) tasks. We found that: (a) threshold of discrimination was higher for continuous than for discrete comparisons; (b) while performance in the discrete task complied with Weber's law, performance in the continuous task violated it; and (c) performance in the discrete task was influenced by continuous properties (e.g., dot density, dot cumulative area) of the dot array that were not predictive of numerosities or task relevant. Therefore, we propose that the magnitude processing system (MPS) is actually divided into separate (yet interactive) systems for discrete and continuous magnitude processing. Further subdivisions are discussed. We argue that cooperation between these systems results in a holistic comparison of magnitudes, one that takes into account continuous properties in addition to numerosities. Considering the MPS as two systems opens the door to new and important questions that shed light on both normal and impaired development of the numerical system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)899-917
Number of pages19
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to Tali Leibovich, Dept. of Cognitive Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, P.O.B. 653, Beer-Sheva 84105, Israel. E-mail: 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. 1 Most studies dealing with animals’ abilities to discriminate magnitudes have studied discrete magnitudes.


  • Approximate number system
  • Continuous magnitudes
  • Numerical cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Physiology


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