Sharing a Mental Number Line Across Individuals? The Role of Body Position and Empathy in Joint Numerical Cognition

Matthias Hartmann (Lead / Corresponding author), Martin Fischer, Fred Walter Mast

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5 Citations (Scopus)
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A growing body of research shows that the human brain acts differently when performing a task together with another person than when performing the same task alone. In this study we investigated the influence of a co-actor on numerical cognition using a joint random number generation task (RNG). We found that participants generated relatively smaller numbers when they were located to the left (vs. right) of a co-actor (Experiment 1), as if the two individuals shared a mental number line and predominantly selected numbers corresponding to their relative body position. Moreover, the mere presence of another person on the left or right side, or the processing of numbers from loudspeaker on the left or right side had no influence on the magnitude of generated numbers (Experiment 2), suggesting that a bias in RNG only emerged during interpersonal interactions. Interestingly, the effect of relative body position on RNG was driven by participants with high trait empathic concern toward others, pointing towards a mediating role of feelings of sympathy for joint compatibility effects. Finally, the spatial bias emerged only after the co-actors swapped their spatial position, suggesting that joint spatial representations are constructed only after the spatial reference frame became salient. In contrast to previous studies, our findings cannot be explained by action corepresentation because the consecutive production of numbers does not involve conflict at the motor response level. Our results therefore suggest that spatial reference coding, rather than motor mirroring, can determine joint compatibility effects. Our results demonstrate how physical properties of interpersonal situations, such as the relative body position, shape seemingly abstract cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number7
Early online date7 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • mental number line
  • random number generation
  • joint action
  • joint Simon effect
  • empathy
  • Interpresonal Reactivity Index (IRI)


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