Vertical or Horizontal: Which is the Better Counting Method for the Human Mind?

By: Inas Essa

Not just in school, counting is widely used in our lives. Horizontal counting is what is used in most western countries, as well as some eastern ones. This kind of order is known as a “mental number line”; it describes an important way of representing numbers and quantity in space. It was designed to help people make sense of numbers if quantities are represented spatially as a larger gap between numbers should make them less confusable.

However, even though it is widely used, horizontal counting does not seem to be the best method. Our minds can actually process numbers faster when numbers are displayed vertically, not horizontally, with the smaller number at the bottom and the larger at the top, according to a recent study by researchers from Australia and Canada.

Previous research has shown that humans prefer to position larger numbers to the right and smaller numbers to the left to make sense of numbers, which helps them compare numbers. Yet, few studies have explored how our minds interact with the vertical number order compared to the horizontal, and which is better for us in associating with numbers. The recent study highlighted this point by studying how vertical counting could be more accurate. The results showed that humans process numbers faster when they are displayed vertically—with smaller numbers at the bottom and larger numbers at the top.

How Do People Process Numbers in Different Arrangements?

In the recent study, researchers set up an experiment where people were shown pairs of numbers from 1 to 9 on a monitor; they used a joystick to indicate where the larger number was located. For example, if 6 and 8 were shown on the screen, the correct answer would be 8 and the participant should point to this by moving the joystick towards the 8 as fast as possible.

The researchers have found that the participants responded faster when numbers were dispersed vertically, rather than horizontally. This suggests that when participants had the opportunity to use either a horizontal or vertical mental representation of numbers in space, they only used the vertical representation.

Additionally, findings showed that, when the larger number was above the smaller number, participants responded much more quickly than in any other arrangement of numbers. This suggests that our mental number line goes from the bottom (small numbers) to the top (large numbers), not from right to left or left to right.



Implementing Vertical Counting in Different Domains

Different domains could benefit from these findings, from pharmacists who use counting to correctly measure doses of medicine, engineers who work with measuring stresses on buildings and structures, pilots who use that in knowing their speed and altitude, and so many other professionals in their everyday work, to children at the different learning settings.

In addition to that, using vertical rather than horizontal counting to display numerical information can also have important implications for how we make fast and accurate decisions.

In a nutshell, after decades of thinking that our minds are wired to horizontal counting, this new study sheds light on how we can benefit more from vertical counting.