Do humans understand values greater than three?

3.8 based on 61 ratings

Updated on Mar 05, 2014

Grade Level: 6th to 12th; Type: psychology, mathematics


This project explores whether humans can intuitively grasp numeric values greater than three.

Research Questions:

  • Do subjects immediately grasp one dot?
  • Two dots?
  • Three dots?
  • Four dots?
  • More dots?

Popular theory holds that humans can only intuitively grasp the numbers one, two, and three. Any more than that and our understanding is not of numeric value but of patterns or abstractions requiring the mediation of language.


  • 20 small (8”x8” or so) squares of white cardboard
  • Sticker dots, all of the same dark color and size
  • Test subjects
  • Paper and pencil for recording and analyzing data

Experimental Procedure

  1. Place one to ten dots on each square of cardboard (two squares with one dot, two squares with two dots, two squares with three dots, etc.). Place the dots randomly around the square (that is, NOT in any sort of pattern as with a domino or playing card).
  2. Sit facing the test subject.
  3. In random order, very quickly raise and lower one square at a time so that the subject qets only a quick glimpse of the dot(s).
  4. Ask the subject how many dots there were.
  5. Record correct/incorrect responses for each square.
  6. Analyze results. Did test subjects correctly identify squares with one dot? Two? Etc. On average, at what number of dots did test subjects stop being able to instantly see how many dots there were?

Terms/Concepts: Humans intuitively grasp numeric values up to only three.


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