How abstract is symbolic thought?

Landy, D. & Goldstone, R. L. (2007). How abstract is symbolic thought? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition33, 720-733.

In 4 experiments, the authors explored the role of visual layout in rule-based syntactic judgments. Participants judged the validity of a set of algebraic equations that tested their ability to apply the order of operations. In each experiment, a nonmathematical grouping pressure was manipulated to support or interfere with the mathematical convention. Despite the formal irrelevance of these grouping manipulations, accuracy in all experiments was highest when the nonmathematical pressure supported the mathematical grouping. The increase was significantly greater when the correct judgment depended on the order of operator precedence. The result that visual perception impacts rule application in mathematics has broad implications for relational reasoning in general. The authors conclude that formally symbolic reasoning is more visual than is usually proposed.

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