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Cogn Sci. 2018 Jun;42 Suppl 3:757-782. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12611. Epub 2018 Apr 23.

The Role of Design and Training in Artifact Expertise: The Case of the Abacus and Visual Attention.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.
Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego.
Department of Psychology, Stanford University.


Previous accounts of how people develop expertise have focused on how deliberate practice transforms the cognitive and perceptual representations and processes that give rise to expertise. However, the likelihood of developing expertise with a particular tool may also depend on the degree to which that tool fits pre-existing perceptual and cognitive abilities. The present studies explored whether the abacus-a descendent of the first human computing devices-may have evolved to exploit general biases in human visual attention, or whether developing expertise with the abacus requires learning special strategies for allocating visual attention to the abacus. To address this question, we administered a series of visual search tasks to abacus experts and subjects who had little to no abacus experience, in which search targets and distractors were overlaid atop abacus "beads." Across three studies, we found that both experts and naïve subjects were faster to detect targets in semantically relevant components of the abacus, suggesting that abacus training is not required to exhibit attentional biases toward these components of the abacus. This finding suggests that the attentional biases that scaffold numerical processing of the abacus may emerge from general properties of visual attention that are exploited by the design of the abacus itself.


Artifact design; Expertise; Mental abacus; Visual attention


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