Applied Cognitive Psychology

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Volume 33 Issue 1 (January 2019), Pages 1-148

Inconsistent operations: A weapon of math disruption (pages 124-138)

Summary Word problems embed a math equation within a short narrative. Due to their structure, both numerical and linguistic factors can contribute to problem difficulty. The present studies explored the role of irrelevant information in word problems, to determine whether its negative impact is due to numerical (foregrounding hypothesis) or linguistic (inconsistent‐operations hypothesis) interference. Across three experiments, participants solved multiplication and division word problems containing irrelevant numerical information, which was either associated or disassociated with the protagonist. Results demonstrated increased solution errors on division problems when irrelevant numbers were disassociated with the protagonist. When memory for numerical information was emphasized, disassociation was specifically impacted low‐working memory individuals. The effect of disassociation on division performance persisted even when irrelevant numbers, but not words, were removed from problems. These results suggest that, even in the presence of numerically interfering information, it is the language of word problems that often drive their difficulty.

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