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5.1.5: Subitizing

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    There are theories that apply to a small number of closely related phenomena. One of these theories is a very specific quantitative ability called subitizing. This refers to people’s ability to quickly and accurately perceive the number of objects in a scene without counting them—as long as the number is four or fewer. Several theories have been proposed to explain subitizing. Among them is the idea that small numbers of objects are associated with easily recognizable patterns. For example, people know immediately that there are three objects in a scene because the three objects tend to form a “triangle” and it is this pattern that is quickly perceived.

    Though fewer, narrow theories have their place in psychological research. Broad theories organize more phenomena but tend to be less formal and less precise in their predictions. Narrow theories organize fewer phenomena but tend to be more formal and more precise in their predictions.

    Treisman’s Attenuation Model as it relates to Divided Attention

    In 1960 psychologist Anne Treisman carried out a number of dichotic listening experiments in which she presented two different stories to the two ears. As usual, she asked people to shadow the message in one ear. As the stories progressed, however, she switched the stories to the opposite ears. Treisman found that individuals spontaneously followed the story, or the content of the message, when it shifted from the left ear to the right ear. Then they realized they were shadowing the wrong ear and switched back.

    Results like this, and the fact that you tend to hear meaningful information even when you aren’t paying attention to it, suggest that we do monitor the unattended information to some degree on the basis of its meaning. Therefore, the established filter theory can’t be right to suggest that unattended information is completely blocked at the sensory analysis level.

    Instead, Treisman suggested that selection starts at the physical or perceptual level, but that the unattended information is not blocked completely, it is just weakened or attenuated. As a result, highly meaningful or pertinent information in the unattended ear will get through the filter for further processing at the level of meaning. The figure below shows information going in both ears, and in this case there is no filter that completely blocks nonselected information. Instead, selection of the left ear information strengthens that material, while the nonselected information in the right ear is weakened. However, if the preliminary analysis shows that the nonselected information is especially pertinent or meaningful (such as your own name), then the Attenuation Control will instead strengthen the more meaningful information.

    Figure 9. Attenuation Input Response Model

    This page titled 5.1.5: Subitizing is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.