TY - JOUR

T1 - Perceiving Infinity

T2 - An Interplay Between Numerical and Physical Magnitude

AU - Pinhas, Michal

N1 - Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 American Psychological Association. All Rights Reserved.

PY - 2023

Y1 - 2023

N2 - Our mental representation of the infinite has received little research attention in cognitive psychology. In countably infinite sets, the infinity symbol (œ) is presumed to be perceived as larger than any finite natural number. The present study sought to explore if the infinity symbol is processed as “larger than” natural numbers, and, if so, whether it is associated with the special status of “the largest.” In a series of four experiments (N = 40, 20, 20, and 40, respectively), participants performed numerical and physical comparisons of the infinity symbol against single- and multidigit numbers. Overall, numerical comparisons yielded slower responses for comparisons between infinity and a number than for comparisons between two numbers. Furthermore, distance-like effects were obtained for comparisons to infinity, suggesting the infinity symbol was treated as larger than all numbers presented. Importantly, however, physical comparisons revealed a normal size congruity effect for comparisons of infinity and single digits, but a reversed effect for comparisons of infinity and multidigit numbers, suggesting that the infinity symbol was automatically processed as smaller than multidigit numbers. These novel findings reveal limitations in abstracting the meanings of infinity from its symbol, indicating that the infinity symbol is not perceived as “the largest” and can be misconceived as a “number” mapped onto the numerical magnitude system. More generally, the results seem to reflect a crude, automatic evaluation of numerical magnitude based on the physical magnitude of the stimuli, namely, their overall length and the number of symbols of which they are comprised.

AB - Our mental representation of the infinite has received little research attention in cognitive psychology. In countably infinite sets, the infinity symbol (œ) is presumed to be perceived as larger than any finite natural number. The present study sought to explore if the infinity symbol is processed as “larger than” natural numbers, and, if so, whether it is associated with the special status of “the largest.” In a series of four experiments (N = 40, 20, 20, and 40, respectively), participants performed numerical and physical comparisons of the infinity symbol against single- and multidigit numbers. Overall, numerical comparisons yielded slower responses for comparisons between infinity and a number than for comparisons between two numbers. Furthermore, distance-like effects were obtained for comparisons to infinity, suggesting the infinity symbol was treated as larger than all numbers presented. Importantly, however, physical comparisons revealed a normal size congruity effect for comparisons of infinity and single digits, but a reversed effect for comparisons of infinity and multidigit numbers, suggesting that the infinity symbol was automatically processed as smaller than multidigit numbers. These novel findings reveal limitations in abstracting the meanings of infinity from its symbol, indicating that the infinity symbol is not perceived as “the largest” and can be misconceived as a “number” mapped onto the numerical magnitude system. More generally, the results seem to reflect a crude, automatic evaluation of numerical magnitude based on the physical magnitude of the stimuli, namely, their overall length and the number of symbols of which they are comprised.

KW - infinity

KW - multidigit numbers

KW - numerical magnitude

KW - physical magnitude

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=85183145890&partnerID=8YFLogxK

U2 - 10.1037/xlm0001322

DO - 10.1037/xlm0001322

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AN - SCOPUS:85183145890

SN - 0278-7393

JO - Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition

JF - Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition

ER -