Put you in the problem: Effects of self-pronouns on mathematical problem solving

Sheila Cunningham (Lead / Corresponding author), Zahra Ahmed, Joshua March, Karen Golden, Charlotte E. H. Wilks, Josephine Ross, Janet F. McLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Self-cues such as personal pronouns are known to elicit processing biases, such an attention capture and prioritisation in working memory. This may impact performance of tasks that have a high attentional load like mathematical problem-solving. Here, we compared the speed and accuracy with which children solved numerical problems that included either the self-cue ‘you’, or a different character name. First, we piloted a self-referencing manipulation with N=52 7- to 11-year-olds, testing performance on addition and subtraction problems that had either a single referent (‘You’/’Sam’) or more than one referent. We took into account operation and positioning of the pronoun, and also measured performance on attention and working memory tasks. We found a robust accuracy advantage for problems that included ‘you’, regardless of how many characters were included. The accuracy advantage for problems with a self-pronoun was not statistically associated with individual differences in attention or working memory. In our main study (9 to 11-year-olds, N=144), we manipulated problem difficulty by creating consistently- and inconsistently-worded addition and subtraction problems. We found significantly higher speed and accuracy for problems that included ‘you’. However, this effect varied by task difficulty, with the self-pronoun effect being strongest in the most difficult inconsistently-worded, subtraction problems. The advantage for problems with a self-pronoun was not associated with individual differences in working memory. These findings suggest that self-cues like the pronoun ‘you’ can be usefully applied in numerical processing tasks, an effect that may be attributable to the effects of self-cues on attention.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)308-325
Number of pages18
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date27 Apr 2023
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


  • self
  • self-referencing
  • problem-solving
  • attention
  • numeracy
  • development
  • Self

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Physiology


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  • Self-referencing in the Classroom

    Ross, J.


    Project: Research

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