Signal clarity: an account of the variability in infant quantity discrimination tasks

Lisa Cantrell, Ty W. Boyer, Sara Cordes, Linda B. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Infants have shown variable success in quantity comparison tasks, with infants of a given age sometimes successfully discriminating numerical differences at a 2:3 ratio but requiring 1:2 and even 1:4 ratios of change at other times. The current explanations for these variable results include the two‐systems proposal – a theoretical framework that suggests that there are multiple systems at play and that these systems do not communicate early in infancy, leading to failure in certain numerical comparisons. An alternative proposal is that infants may be attending to continuous extent dimensions in these tasks rather than number per se. However, neither of these two main proposals is independently capable of accounting for the previously published data. Recently the Signal Clarity Hypothesis was proposed to account for and predict the variability (Cantrell & Smith, 2013). According to this hypothesis, infants’ variable success may be understood from a framework of statistical learning taken together with the signal‐to‐noise ratio generated by control procedures in habituation tasks. Here we test specific predictions made by the Signal Clarity Hypothesis. Across four experiments assessing 9‐month old discriminations of small and large sets (2 vs. 4 and 3 vs. 4), we demonstrate that infant success can be predicted by this novel approach and, further, that infants may discriminate smaller ratios of change than previously believed (3:4 numerical change and 2:3 cumulative area change).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)877-893
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number6
Early online date20 Jan 2015
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes

Cite this