One, two, three, four, nothing more: an investigation of the conceptual sources of the verbal counting principles

Cognition. 2007 Nov;105(2):395-438. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2006.10.005. Epub 2007 Jan 8.


Since the publication of [Gelman, R., & Gallistel, C. R. (1978). The child's understanding of number. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.] seminal work on the development of verbal counting as a representation of number, the nature of the ontogenetic sources of the verbal counting principles has been intensely debated. The present experiments explore proposals according to which the verbal counting principles are acquired by mapping numerals in the count list onto systems of numerical representation for which there is evidence in infancy, namely, analog magnitudes, parallel individuation, and set-based quantification. By asking 3- and 4-year-olds to estimate the number of elements in sets without counting, we investigate whether the numerals that are assigned cardinal meaning as part of the acquisition process display the signatures of what we call "enriched parallel individuation" (which combines properties of parallel individuation and of set-based quantification) or analog magnitudes. Two experiments demonstrate that while "one" to "four" are mapped onto core representations of small sets prior to the acquisition of the counting principles, numerals beyond "four" are only mapped onto analog magnitudes about six months after the acquisition of the counting principles. Moreover, we show that children's numerical estimates of sets from 1 to 4 elements fail to show the signature of numeral use based on analog magnitudes - namely, scalar variability. We conclude that, while representations of small sets provided by parallel individuation, enriched by the resources of set-based quantification are recruited in the acquisition process to provide the first numerical meanings for "one" to "four", analog magnitudes play no role in this process.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Awareness
  • Child, Preschool
  • Comprehension
  • Concept Formation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language Development
  • Male
  • Mathematics*
  • Problem Solving*
  • Verbal Behavior*