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Psychophysiology, •• (2015),••–••.
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V Psychophysiological Research
DOI: 10.1111/psyp.12367

Arithmetic and algebraic problem solving and resource allocation:

The distinct impact of fluid and numerical intelligence


Department of Psychology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, & Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Berlin, Germany

This study investigates cognitive resource allocation dependent on fluid and numerical intelligence in arithmetic/
algebraic tasks varying in difficulty. Sixty-six 11th grade students participated in a mathematical verification paradigm,
while pupil dilation as a measure of resource allocation was collected. Students with high fluid intelligence solved the
tasks faster and more accurately than those with average fluid intelligence, as did students with high compared to average
numerical intelligence. However, fluid intelligence sped up response times only in students with average but not high
numerical intelligence. Further, high fluid but not numerical intelligence led to greater task-related pupil dilation. We
assume that fluid intelligence serves as a domain-general resource that helps to tackle problems for which domain-
specific knowledge (numerical intelligence) is missing. The allocation of this resource can be measured by pupil dilation.
Descriptors: Phasic pupil dilation, Arithmetic, Algebra, Fluid intelligence, Numerical intelligence, Individual

Fluid intelligence (FI) plays a crucial role in mathematical achieve- Pupillary Response as an Indicator of Cognitive Load
ment. FI refers to abilities that are required in order to execute
reasoning processes successfully. It allows people to think flexibly The task-evoked pupil dilation (PD) is a measure of processing
and to solve new problems effectively (Cattell, 1987). This implies load (Beatty & Lucero-Wagoner, 2000). PD increases with increas-
that FI enables people to identify complex relations by selecting ing task difficulty (Karatekin, 2004; Landgraf, van der Meer, &
relevant and inhibiting irrelevant information. Individuals with Krüger, 2010). Two theories that explain this relationship between
high FI solve reasoning tasks faster than individuals with average pupil diameter and processing load are:
FI (van der Meer, 1996). Gallagher (1989) found that the perfor- 1. Changes in pupil diameter are related to activation changes
mance on the mathematical subtest of the Scholastic Aptitude Test of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system
(SAT Mathematics) was predicted best out of several variables (FI, (Steinhauer, Siegle, Condray, & Pless, 2004). Although the
visual-spatial abilities, learning style, and verbal subtest of the structures for regulation of pupil size, such as the Edinger-
SAT) by FI, as measured through Raven’s advanced progressive Westphal nucleus, are subcortical, their activity is modulated by
matrices (RAPM; Raven, 1958). However, it remains unclear how cortical regions. Steinhauer et al. (2004) investigated the influ-
FI allows subjects to perform better. Van der Meer et al. (2010) ence of sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways on the
point to FI-related differences in the allocation of cognitive pupillary response during less (add 1) or more (subtract 7)
resources—indicated by the pupillary response—that underlie per- cognitively demanding processing. They were able to identify
formance differences in a geometric analogy task. Their findings the neural dynamics behind this effect: direct cortical and
suggest that pupillometry might be an appropriate measure to indirect corticothalamic-hypothalamic pathways inhibit the
investigate sources of individual differences in mathematical Edinger-Westphal complex of the oculomotor nucleus in the
cognition. midbrain. This leads to the relaxation of the parasympathetically
driven sphincter muscles and thereby to the dilation of the pupil
(Lowenstein, 1955). The authors ascertained that one part of
change in pupil diameter was associated with sympathetic acti-
vation and another with the inhibition of the parasympathetic
This research was supported by grants from the German pathway. Beyond that, an additional component of parasympa-
Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF; Programme: Neu-
roscience Instruction Learning). We thank Nicole Nowacka and Dorothea thetic inhibition was detectable, although only in the cognitive
Reiter for support in data acquisition, and Jan Ries for technical advice. demanding condition, which most probably requires frontal cor-
This work benefited from valuable discussions with Manja Foth, Gesa tical functioning.
Schaadt, and Boris Bornemann. The authors thank Gesa Schaadt, Boris 2. The adaptive gain theory of locus coeruleus-norepinephrine
Bornemann, and Christin Arndt for language editing.
(LC-NE) function (Aston-Jones & Cohen, 2005) proposes that
Address correspondence to: Annika Dix, Institut für Psychologie,
Kognitive Psychologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Rudower the pupil diameter probably indexes LC activity. There are two
Chaussee 18, 12489 Berlin, Germany. E-mail: modes of LC activity that control neuromodulatory effects
2 and algebraic problem solving 545
A. Dix and E. van der Meer

of norepinephric projections on the neocortex and thereby rules as well (Menon, 2010). Neural efficiency most likely emerges
influence task engagement. The tonic activity of the LC-NE after the acquisition of appropriate task-solving strategies
system supports the exploration of the environment by high base (Neubauer & Fink, 2009). For instance, Grabner et al. (2007) dis-
rate neuron firing, allowing sensitivity to all kinds of stimuli covered that individuals with higher numerical intelligence (NI)
(low task engagement). The phasic activity selectively facili- rely more strongly on fact retrieval when solving multiplication
tates responses to task-relevant processes by accentuated firing problems. Ahern and Beatty (1979) reported a more efficient pro-
while filtering responses to irrelevant events (high task cessing of simple, overlearned multiplication tasks across all levels
engagement). of difficulty—measured by phasic PD—by more intelligent indi-
viduals (measured by SAT). In contrast and in accordance with the
We argue that these two theories are not independent, but
resource hypothesis, in the pupillometric study of van der Meer
interrelated with each other. Actually, the same hypothalamic path-
et al. (2010), students with high FI outperformed controls with
ways that drive the sympathetic nervous system are the major
average abilities mainly in the most demanding problems of a
afferents to the LC (Aston-Jones, Ennis, Pieribone, Nickell, &
geometric analogy task, to which they allocated more cognitive
Shipley, 1986) suggesting that both systems function parallel to
resources than average FI controls. This emphasizes the importance
each other.
of investigating the roles of task type and prior knowledge when
Altogether, PD reflects cognitive resource allocation and is
trying to understand how high-FI individuals allocate cognitive
related to LC activity, which excites the cortex and concomitant
resources. Therefore, the current study aimed at testing (a) whether
sympathetic arousal, as well as parasympathetic inhibition, which
the findings of van der Meer et al. (2010) can be generalized to
is the result of frontal cortical activity. In this study, we used the
other mathematical subdomains (cf. Bornemann et al., 2010),
pupillary response to investigate cognitive resource allocation. Our
namely, arithmetic and algebra, and (b) whether they are only
first aim was to figure out how individuals with high FI allocate
specific for FI or also for NI.
cognitive resources compared to individuals with lower FI, when
they are solving different mathematical tasks.
The Current Study
FI and Cognitive Resources The main goal of the current study was to characterize the relation-
There are three hypotheses that put cognitive resources into relation ship between FI, NI, mathematical performance, and resource
with FI and superior performance: First, the efficiency hypothesis allocation. We compared individuals with high and average FI
considers efficiency in neural functioning as the defining criterion and NI in the processing of arithmetic and algebraic tasks with
of FI (Brand, 1984) and, hence, more fluid intelligent individuals varying difficulty. We contrasted the effects of FI (measured by
are expected to spend less mental effort for solving a problem than RAPM; Raven, 1958) with those of NI (measured by Berliner
less fluid intelligent individuals. In other words, they make efficient Intelligenzstruktur-Test, BIS; Jäger, Süß, & Beauducel, 1997) to
use of their resources. Second, the effort hypothesis assumes a compare their impact on solving different mathematical problems.
reverse correlation between FI and the allocation of cognitive Both intelligence measures are partly related to each other (for
resources. That is, more fluid intelligent individuals spend more details concerning the link between FI and NI, see Beauducel,
mental effort for solving a problem than less fluid intelligent indi- Brocke, & Liepmann, 2001; Beauducel & Kersting, 2002), and are
viduals. They put more effort (resources) into the task. Third, the associated with mathematical abilities. Due to this overlap, one
resource hypothesis states that differences in the amount of could expect similar effects of NI and FI not only on task perfor-
invested resources depend on task difficulty (for review, see Just, mance, but also on cognitive resource allocation in mathematical
Carpenter, & Miyake, 2003). More fluid intelligent individuals cognition. On the other hand, findings on resource allocation and
invest more cognitive resources than less fluid intelligent individ- its relation to intelligence are contradictory and might be specific to
uals, but only for solving demanding problems. Findings of van der the intelligence facet and the mathematical domain assessed. As
Meer et al. (2010), who applied a geometric analogy task, concur outlined above, higher NI was associated with higher neural effi-
with this resource hypothesis. ciency in arithmetic problems (Grabner et al., 2007), whereas
Early studies mostly confirmed the efficiency hypothesis higher FI led to the allocation of more cognitive resources, that is,
(Ahern & Beatty, 1979). However, more recent studies reveal some lower neural efficiency in geometric analogy tasks (van der Meer
important moderator variables, such as task difficulty, novelty, et al., 2010). Thus, we assume that NI supports a more efficient
and method (for review, see Neubauer & Fink, 2009). Briefly, processing of simple mathematical tasks, whereas FI enables an
neural efficiency is assumed to be present only in tasks of low to individual to allocate more cognitive resources to solve difficult
moderate task difficulty and most often seems to concern frontal tasks.
brain regions (Preusse, van der Meer, Deshpande, Krüger, & In this study, we made the following predictions: First, we
Wartenburger, 2011; Preusse et al., 2010). With this in mind, it assumed that individuals with high FI and NI would outperform
appears to be crucial to inspect the impact of task demands and individuals with average FI and NI (shorter response times, fewer
other potential moderating factors on the relationship between FI errors). Second, task difficulty was manipulated so that the most
and resource allocation in mathematical cognition in more detail. difficult tasks were constituted of a combination of the easier ones.
Therefore, we expected the performance on difficult tasks to be
Mathematical Cognition, Numerical Intelligence, and partly predictable by the performance on their constituents—the
Cognitive Resources easier tasks. We also assumed an additional distinct impact of FI,
but not NI, on the performance in the difficult tasks, because FI
In order to examine cognitive resource allocation as one source of allows for greater flexibility especially when dealing with new
individual difference in mathematical performance, one should requirements compared to NI. Third, we aimed at extending find-
also consider other influencing factors apart from FI. Actually, ings of van der Meer et al. (2010) on resource allocation in geo-
mathematical cognition depends on retrieval of learned facts and metric analogy tasks to other mathematical subdomains. Thus, we
Arithmetic and algebraic problem solving A. Dix and E. van der Meer3

expected individuals with high FI to allocate more cognitive were assigned to the group with higher NI (high-BISnumerical of
resources (greater phasic PD) than individuals with average FI (at high-RAPM: M = 107.6, SD = 3.1). For those with average FI, 16
least in difficult tasks). These findings would support the effort participants scored below the BISnumerical group mean of M = 100.4
hypothesis (or resource hypothesis), but not the efficiency hypoth- and were assigned to the group of individuals with lower NI
esis. Differences in NI are also related to differences in the amount (average-BISnumerical of average-RAPM: M = 95.9, SD = 2.9),
of cognitive resources allocated to the tasks. However, we expected whereas 16 participants scored above the BISnumerical group mean of
a reverse direction of this relationship compared to FI, namely, M = 100.4 and were assigned to the group with higher NI (high-
the allocation of less cognitive resources by individuals with BISnumerical of average-RAPM: M = 104.9, SD = 3.9). The resulting
higher NI, supporting the efficiency hypothesis (cf. Ahern & two groups for the whole sample, namely, high and average FI with
Beatty, 1979; Grabner et al., 2007). This should be reflected in a lower NI (average-BISnumerical: M = 97.3, SD = 3.2) and high and
smaller phasic PD for individuals with higher NI than individuals average FI with higher NI (high-BISnumerical: M = 106.3, SD = 3.7)
with lower NI. differed significantly in their numerical BIS scores, t(64) = −10.41,
p ≤ .001, one-tailed, r = .79.
After this procedure, the classification of participants according
Method to RAPM IQ and to the numerical BIS score did not correlate any
Participants longer (coefficient of contingency φ = −.03, p = .41, one-tailed)
excluding confounding factors of the overlap between FI and NI for
Originally, 91 Grade 11 students of three Berlin schools that spe- further analyses.
cialized in mathematics and natural sciences participated. Alto-
gether, 66 participants were included in the analysis (13 female; Experimental Paradigm
age: M = 15.1 years, SD = 0.5). Reasons for exclusion are
described below. All of them had normal or corrected-to-normal The test consisted of a control condition—number/symbol identity
vision, no history of neurological or psychiatric diseases, and were task—and an experimental condition (see Figure 1).
not taking any medication. The students and their parents gave In the control condition, participants received an instruction
informed written consent prior to the investigation. Students were about the number/symbol identity task. They had to compare two
paid for their participation. one-digit or two-digit numbers, or two algebraic terms (each
consisting of one variable) and evaluate their identity. We imple-
Psychometric Tests mented the task to control for visual and motor activity. After
performing four practice trials, participants had to complete the
The screening test was accomplished 1 year prior to the experiment 28 trials of this condition (14 numbers and 14 algebraic terms;
and included the following psychometric tests: FI was measured by 50% identical, i.e., target items and 50% different, i.e., distractor
the RAPM (Raven, 1958; Heller, Kratzmeier, & Lengfelder, 1998). items).
The numerical subtests of the four operations facets (processing In the experimental condition, participants were instructed to
capacity, memory, fluency, and processing speed) of the BIS (Jäger mentally solve mathematical problems belonging to one of six
et al., 1997) were applied in order to assess NI. problem types as quickly and accurately as possible (probe).
Considering the association between FI and NI mentioned Afterwards, they had to evaluate the correctness of a given can-
above (see Beauducel et al., 2001; Beauducel & Kersting, 2002), didate answer (see Figure 2). Task material was designed so that,
we expected a positive correlation between the ascertained scores first, problem types differed in their difficulty and, second, the
of FI and NI. Pearson’s bivariate correlation revealed a moderate most difficult problem type f was composed of task features of the
relationship between the RAPM IQ and the numerical BIS score easier problem types c and e. Accordingly, we assumed the per-
(r = .32, p ≤ .01, one-tailed). formance on problem type f to be predictable by the performance
To investigate the impact of FI and NI on mathematical perfor- on its constituent parts c and e. Each problem type was explained
mance and resource allocation in detail, we divided our sample into separately prior to the experimental phase and consisted of 28
two groups of students differing in their RAPM scores and two items, 14 targets (correct candidate answers) and 14 distractors
groups of students differing in their BIS scores. First, participants (incorrect candidate answers). The problem types were practiced
were divided into two groups based on their RAPM scores (whole in four practice trials directly after instruction and repeated until a
sample: M = 118.4, SD = 16.5): 32 participants scored in the range hit ratio of 75% was reached. Afterwards, the overall 168 items of
of 85–115 IQ points and were assigned to the average FI group the experimental condition were presented in pseudorandomized
(average-RAPM; M = 103.8, SD = 7.6), whereas 34 participants order (self-paced pauses after 28 trials). Stimuli were presented
scored above 115 IQ points and were assigned to the high FI group in black color with a mean luminance of 36.5 cd/m2 (36.2–
(high-RAPM; M = 132.2, SD = 8.9). The two groups differed sig- 36.8 cd/m2 for the six different problem types) on a light gray
nificantly in their RAPM IQ, t(64) = −13.92, p ≤ .001, one-tailed, background with a mean luminance of 39.5 cd/m2. The whole test
r = .87, as well as in their numerical BIS scores, t(64) = −1.72, took about 1 hr to complete. Response times (RTs) and PD for
p ≤ .05, one-tailed, r = .21. probes reflecting the computation time and the amount of cogni-
To consider the correlation between FI and NI (r = .32), our tive resources allocated to the task, as well as RTs and error rates
second classification of participants was realized by dividing each for targets (see Figure 2), were recorded as dependent variables.
RAPM group into two groups according to their numerical BIS Because of the variety of reasons that can lead to incorrect com-
scores (whole sample: M = 101.7, SD = 5.7): 18 participants with putational results, we focused only on the correctly solved tasks
high FI scored below the BISnumerical group mean of M = 102.8 and for the analyses of RTs and PD. In addition, it is not necessary to
were assigned to the group of individuals with lower NI (average- generate the correct solution of the task in order to identify a
BISnumerical of high-RAPM: M = 98.6, SD = 3.1), whereas 16 par- distractor as incorrect. Thus, calculation errors cannot always be
ticipants scored above the BISnumerical group mean of M = 102.8 and detected. Altogether, this led us to only analyze the data for cor-
4 and algebraic problem solving 547
A. Dix and E. van der Meer

Control condition: number/symbol identity task

target target

distractor distractor

Experimental condition

target target

a. d.
distractor distractor

target target

b. e.
distractor distractor

target target

c. f.
distractor distractor

Figure 1. Examples of arithmetic and algebraic expressions (left) and correct (target) and incorrect (distractor) candidate answers (right).
Control condition: one- or two-digit numbers (left), algebraic terms (right). Experimental condition: arithmetic problem types with increasing task difficulty:
a. multiplication of two one-digit numbers, b. canceling down of two one- or two-digit numbers, c. operations with fractions (a and b combined); algebraic
problem types with increasing task difficulty: d. simplifying basic algebraic expressions, e. simplifying advanced algebraic expressions; combined arithmetic
and algebraic problem type: f. simplifying complex algebraic expressions (c and e combined).

rectly solved target items (items with correct candidate answers, each participant, a calibration was performed to obtain a transfor-
which were recognized as such). mation from the measured pupil size in pixels into pupil size in
millimeters: a black dot of a fixed diameter of 5 mm was placed on
Data Acquisition the closed right eyelid. Its pixel size was registered and then used
to determine an exchange ratio for converting pixels to pupil diam-
Participants were tested separately in a quiet, moderately eter in millimeters.
illuminated room (background luminance 500 lx). To control for
pupil-influencing factors (e.g., drug consumption, medication, psy- Data Analyses
chiatric and neurological dysfunction; cf. Loewenfeld, 1993), par-
ticipants completed a corresponding pen-and-paper questionnaire Data analysis for behavioral data (RTs, error rates) was computed
(simultaneous background luminance adaptation). Then, they were with the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences 15 (SPSS Inc.,
seated in front of a computer screen (size of the display: 19″, Chicago, IL). First, an outlier analysis was conducted: correct trials
display resolution: 1,024 × 768) at a distance of 60 cm. The testing for which RTs for probe and/or target1 were two SDs above or
was conducted on a computer using the software Presentation 9.01 below the sample mean of the regarded item as well as items on
(Neurobehavioral Systems Inc., Albany, CA) running on a which RTs for probe and/or target were two SDs above or below the
Microsoft Windows XP operating system. This computer, which sample mean of the regarded problem type were removed. Thereby,
recorded the behavioral data, was connected to a second computer 11.64% of the trials were eliminated. The occurrence of outliers
using an iViewX Hi-Speed system (SensoMotoric Instruments was independent of the problem type. Afterwards, the responses
GmbH, Teltow, Germany) that recorded a measurement of the pupil were averaged for each condition and participant. MATLAB 7.1
diameter of the right eye with a sampling frequency of 240 Hz. The (The MathWorks, Inc., Natick, MA) and SPSS 15 were used for
pupillometer (infrared light source with λ = 700–1,049 nm and
video camera sensitive to infrared light) was attached to a stand 1. We wanted to ensure that participants did not calculate once again by
with a chin rest and forehead support to stabilize the participant’s inspecting the RTs for targets. Hence, trials with long RTs for target were
head. All instructions and tests were presented on a screen. For discarded.
Arithmetic and algebraic problem solving A. Dix and E. van der Meer5

Fixation (1,000 ms)

Probe (self-paced)

Candidate answer

Mask (2,500 ms)

Blank (500 ms)

1st Response 2nd Response


Figure 2. Trial scheme: A centered fixation cross (the last 200 ms were used to measure the pretrial pupil baseline diameter) was followed by the
mathematical problem (experimental condition; probe) or the number/variable (control condition; probe). The candidate answer (target/distractor) was
requested by pressing a button. Responses about the correctness of the candidate answer were given by pressing the left (right index finger) or right (right
ring finger) arrow key (assignment of keys—correct vs. incorrect—was counterbalanced). To keep the luminance of the stimuli constant over the whole trial,
the remainder of the mathematical equation was blurred during the presentation of the probe and later the candidate answer. After the second response, a
blurred mask of the whole item appeared followed by a blank screen (relaxation phase).

pupillary data. Before the statistical data analysis, pupillary linear regression approach to predict RTs (only probe) of problem
data were cleaned following standard procedures (Beatty & type f: first, including RTs of the constituent problem types c and e;
Lucero-Wagoner, 2000; Granholm, Asarnow, Sarkin, & Dykes, second, the peak PD of these problem types; and, third, FI and NI
1996): trials with excessive blinking were discarded. There was no to capture their additional impact independent of that already
systematic distribution of pupillary artifacts across the problem covered by RTs and PD. Significant main effects of our analyses
types of the experimental condition. Small blinks were replaced by were further analyzed by separate t tests or Wilcoxon signed-rank
cubical interpolation. An average of 79% of all trials remained after tests. For all analyses, a rejection criterion of p ≤ .05 was chosen
discarding errors, outliers, and artifacts. The pupillary responses (Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons).
were baseline corrected for each trial subtracting the average pupil
diameter of a 200-ms period before stimulus onset (pretrial base-
line correction). We computed a response-locked (first button press Results
after presentation of the probe)2 pupillary response, smoothed by
Behavioral Data
an unweighted 5-point moving average filter, for each problem type
and participant. To extract a reliable measurement of pupillary Number/symbol identity task (control condition). Descriptive
response and to reduce noise in data for the statistical analyses, we statistics for this task are displayed in Table 1a, including means
only allowed an average of at least seven trials per problem type and standard deviations of RTs and error rates dependent on FI and
and participant. As a result, we retained 66 participants with an NI. One participant reversed the assignment of keys in the number/
available pupillary response for all problem types. The groups symbol identity task and was therefore excluded from this com-
classified according to the intelligence scores did not differ in the parison. A 2 (GroupRAPM: high vs. average FI) × 2 (GroupBIS-numerical:
number of losses. The peak PD of the computational process (i.e., higher vs. lower NI) ANOVA on RTs as dependent variable was
probe), defined as the maximal dilation until 1,000 ms after the first performed. It revealed a statistically significant main effect of
button press, was determined for each condition and participant. groupRAPM, F(1,61) = 4.89, p ≤ .05, η2 = .07. Participants with high
Assumptions for the statistical data analyses were tested. Error FI performed significantly faster than participants with average FI.
rates were not normally distributed (Kolmogorov-Smirnov test). The main effect of groupBIS-numerical, F(1,61) = 1.02, p = .32,
Thus, nonparametric procedures were performed. For repeated η2 = .02, and the interaction GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical,
measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs), degrees of freedom F(1,61) = 1.03, p = .31, η2 = .02, did not reach significance. The
were Greenhouse-Geisser corrected, if the assumption of sphericity error rate did not differ with respect to FI (Mann-Whitney
was violated. We computed factorial and repeated measures U = 484.00, p = .46, two-tailed) and NI (Mann-Whitney
ANOVAs for RTs (only probe) and peak PD, and Kruskal-Wallis U = 601.50, p = .20, two-tailed).
test and Friedman test for error rates. We applied a hierarchical

Experimental condition. Descriptive statistics are displayed in

2. Stimulus-locked results were analyzed as well. Results are consis- Table 1b, including means and standard deviations of RTs and error
tent with the response-locked results reported below. rates for all six problem types dependent on FI and NI.
6 and algebraic problem solving 549
A. Dix and E. van der Meer

Table 1a. Number/Symbol Identity Task (Control Condition)

High-RAPMa Average-RAPMa
High-BISnumericalb Average-BISnumericalb High-BISnumericalb Average-BISnumericalb
M (ms) 796.68 796.45 842.18 919.11
SD (ms) 132.39 154.45 150.00 171.93
Error rates
M (%) 1.34 3.57 1.42 1.79
SD (%) 2.88 5.05 2.96 3.19
Peak PD
M (mm) 0.37 0.42 0.36 0.25
SD (mm) 0.17 0.19 0.15 0.16
Comparison of individuals with high FI (high-RAPM) and individuals with average FI (average-RAPM).
Comparison of individuals with higher NI (high-BISnumerical) and individuals with lower NI (average-BISnumerical).

RTs. A 2 (GroupRAPM: high vs. average FI) × 2 (GroupBIS-numerical: Difficulty just failed to reach significance, F(1.40,86.83) = 2.91,
higher vs. lower NI) × 6 (Task Difficulty: six problem types) p = .08, η2 = .05. RTs increased for more difficult tasks and
repeated measures ANOVA on RTs as dependent variable was individuals with high FI performed faster than individuals with
performed. It revealed statistically significant main effects of task average FI except in tasks of problem type a (multiplication; see
difficulty, F(1.40,86.83) = 906.80, p ≤ .001, η2 = .94; groupRAPM, also Figure 3). Individuals with higher NI were faster than individ-
F(1,62) = 9.73, p ≤ .01, one-tailed, η2 = .14; and groupBIS-numerical, uals with lower NI. The difference for problem type e was statisti-
F(1,62) = 12.66, p ≤ .01, one-tailed, η2 = .17; as well as a significant cally larger than the differences for problem types a (z = 1.60,
interaction of GroupRAPM × Difficulty, F(1.40,86.83) = 8.94, p ≤ .01, p ≤ .05), d (z = 2.20, p ≤ .05), and f (z = 1.78, p ≤ .05). As a trend,
η2 = .13; and GroupBIS-numerical × Difficulty, F(1.40,86.83) = 5.39, high FI speeds up RTs only for participants with lower NI. In
p ≤ .05, η2 = .08. There was no significant interaction of contrast, higher NI speeds up RTs for participants with average FI in
GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical, F(1,62) = 2.27, p = .14, η2 = .04. all problem types and for participants with high FI in problem types
Also, the interaction of GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical × Task b, c, and e.

Table 1b. Experimental Condition

High-BISnumericalc (N = 16) Average-BISnumericalc (N = 18)
Problem type a b c d e f a b c d e f
RTs (probe)
M (ms) 1,637 1,476 4,735 2,086 4,685 13,311 1,707 1,822 5,714 2,318 5,851 13,939
SD (ms) 568 281 965 490 986 2,850 410 428 1,902 720 1,600 3,174
Error rates
M (%) 1.786 1.786 10.268 1.339 4.018 16.517 5.159 2.778 15.873 2.778 3.571 18.254
SD (%) 3.194 3.194 5.813 2.879 4.494 8.539 6.845 4.984 9.969 4.341 5.614 10.741
Peak PD
M (mm) 0.318 0.389 0.419 0.355 0.434 0.530 0.343 0.351 0.517 0.369 0.468 0.568
SD (mm) 0.172 0.173 0.183 0.157 0.185 0.210 0.175 0.171 0.208 0.166 0.211 0.227

High-BISnumerical (N = 16)
Average-BISnumericalc (N = 16)
Problem typea a b c d e f a b c d e f
RTs (probe)
M (ms) 1,633 1,632 5,290 2,352 5,125 14,588 2,131 2,091 6,857 2,754 6,872 18,363
SD (ms) 563 463 962 489 1,044 2,808 642 507 1,810 723 1,493 4,772
Error rates
M (%) 1.905 1.429 14.286 7.142 13.810 20.000 2.232 2.232 15.625 5.357 12.500 24.107
SD (%) 4.240 2.957 8.099 11.454 16.744 11.197 3.419 3.419 11.434 6.650 12.372 11.331
Peak PD
M (mm) 0.289 0.295 0.378 0.316 0.393 0.491 0.264 0.246 0.345 0.252 0.322 0.440
SD (mm) 0.125 0.099 0.160 0.138 0.210 0.177 0.141 0.147 0.150 0.162 0.133 0.138
Problem type: a = multiplication of two one-digit numbers; b = canceling down of two one- or two-digit numbers; c = operations with fractions;
d = simplifying basic algebraic expressions; e = simplifying advanced algebraic expressions; f = simplifying complex algebraic expressions.
Comparison of individuals with high FI (high-RAPM) and individuals with average FI (average-RAPM).
Comparison of individuals with higher NI (high-BISnumerical) and individuals with lower NI (average-BISnumerical).
Arithmetic and algebraic problem solving A. Dix and E. van der Meer7

F(3.85,238.46) = 45.27, p ≤ .001, η2 = .42, and groupRAPM,

F(1,62) = 5.69, p ≤ .05, η2 = .08. Peak PD increased for more
difficult tasks (Figure 4), and individuals with high FI exhibited
a larger peak PD than individuals with average FI. The main effect
of groupBIS-numerical, F(1,62) < 1, as well as the interactions
of Task Difficulty × GroupRAPM, F(3.85,238.46) < 1, Task
Difficulty × GroupBIS-numerical, F(3.85,238.46) = 1.23, p = .30,
GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical, F(1,62) = 1.13, p = .29, and
GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical × Task Difficulty, F(3.85,238.46) < 1,
were not statistically significant.

Linear Regression Analysis

Table 2 contains the model fit and the included predictor variables
Figure 3. Experimental condition: RTs dependent on FI and NI for all six for different models for RTs on tasks of problem type f. The
problem types (a. multiplication of two one-digit numbers, b. canceling regression model for the whole sample included the RTs on opera-
down of two one- or two-digit numbers, c. operations with fractions, tions with fractions (problem type c) and simplifying advanced
d. simplifying basic algebraic expressions, e. simplifying advanced algebraic expressions (problem type e) as predictor variables and,
algebraic expressions, f. simplifying complex algebraic expressions). Light additionally, the peak PD exhibited during these two problem
gray rectangles on bars of different problem types mark the same task types. Thereby, 68% of the performance variance could be
difficulty of these problem types; all other comparisons revealed explained. For individuals with average FI, only the speed (RTs) in
statistically significant differences in RTs (Bonferroni corrected). simplifying advanced algebraic expressions (problem type e)
showed a predictive value for the performance in the mixed arith-
metic and algebraic problem type f. On the contrary, the regression
Error rates. A Friedman test on error rates revealed a statisti- model of individuals with high FI contained the RTs as well as
cally significant main effect of task difficulty, χ2(5) = 191.25, the PD in both math problems. A reverse difference concerning
p ≤ .001, two-tailed. Paired comparisons by sign test identified the predictor variables was observed for the comparison
problem types a, b, and d to be solved most accurately, followed by of the regression models dependent on NI: RTs on problem types
problem types c and e. Most of the mistakes were made in tasks of c and e, as well as PD for problem type e and FI, showed a
problem type f. A Mann-Whitney U test showed a significant dif- predictive value for the performance in problem type f for individ-
ference concerning the error rates depending on FI (U = 378.50, uals with lower NI, whereas the regression model of individuals
p ≤ .05, one-tailed) and NI (U = 404.00, p ≤ .05, one-tailed) with with higher NI contained only the RTs of both problem types c
fewer errors for individuals with high FI (M = 5.95%, SD = 3.07) and e.
and higher NI (M = 6.63%, SD = 4.73) than individuals with
average FI (M = 8.85%, SD = 5.67) and lower NI (M = 8.04%, Discussion
SD = 4.67).
The aim of the current study was to analyze the relationship
Pupillary Data between task difficulty, fluid (FI) and numerical intelligence (NI),
resource allocation, and mathematical performance across two
Number/symbol identity task (control condition). Descriptive mathematical domains. Participants were presented with arithmetic
statistics for this task are displayed in Table 1a including means and algebraic problems differing in task composition and difficulty.
and standard deviations of peak PD dependent on FI and NI. A 2 We assessed RTs and error rates as well as phasic pupil dilation
(GroupRAPM: high vs. average FI) × 2 (GroupBIS-numerical: higher vs. (PD; Aston-Jones & Cohen, 2005).
lower NI) ANOVA on peak PD as dependent variable was per- The main results of our study can be summarized as follows:
formed. It revealed a statistically significant main effect of First, the arithmetic and algebraic problems were solved faster and
groupRAPM, F(1,60) = 3.89, p = .05, η2 = .06. The main effect more accurately by individuals with high compared to average FI
of groupBIS-numerical, F(1,60) < 1) and—if only just—the interaction while individuals with high FI showed greater PD. Second, indi-
of GroupRAPM × GroupBIS-numerical, F(1,60) = 3.14, p = .08, η2 = .05, viduals with higher NI outperformed individuals with lower
did not reach significance. Individuals with high FI exhibited sig- NI behaviorally, but PD did not differ between these two groups.
nificantly greater peak PD than individuals with average FI. Third, RTs in the more difficult tasks were (only) partly predictable
However, the marginally significant interaction effect might indi- by the performance in the easier tasks, of which they were
cate that this greater peak PD is only observable among those composed. PD was an additional predictor of performance in
individuals with high FI that are at the same time characterized by the more difficult tasks only for individuals with high FI and
a lower NI (see Table 1a). lower NI.

Experimental condition. Descriptive statistics for the experimen- Impact of Intelligence (FI vs. NI) on Mathematical
tal condition are displayed in Table 1b including means and standard Performance
deviations of peak PD for all six problem types dependent on FI and
NI.A2 (GroupRAPM: high vs. average FI) × 2 (GroupBIS-numerical: higher We discovered that individuals with high FI and higher NI solved
vs. lower NI) × 6 (Task Difficulty: six problem types) repeated the arithmetic and algebraic problems more accurately than indi-
measures ANOVA on peak PD as dependent variable yielded viduals with average FI and lower NI. This meets our first hypoth-
statistically significant main effects of task difficulty, esis and is in accordance with previous findings showing that errors
8 and algebraic problem solving 551
A. Dix and E. van der Meer

high-RAPM: High difficulty high-BIS: High difficulty
average-RAPM: High difficulty average-BIS: High difficulty
high-RAPM: Medium difficulty high-BIS: Medium difficulty
average-RAPM: Medium difficulty average-BIS: Medium difficulty
high-RAPM: Low difficulty high-BIS: Low difficulty
average-RAPM: Low difficulty average-BIS: Low difficulty
Pupil Dilaon (mm)




-6 -5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 1

Time (seconds) First Buon Press

Figure 4. Experimental condition: pupillary responses (response-locked) dependent on FI (high-RAPM: individuals with high FI, average-RAPM:
individuals with average FI) and difficulty (low difficulty comprises tasks from problem types a. multiplication of two one-digit numbers, b. canceling down
of two one- or two-digit numbers, and d. simplifying basic algebraic expressions; medium difficulty comprises tasks from problem types c. operations with
fractions, and e. simplifying advanced algebraic expressions; high difficulty comprises tasks from problem type f. simplifying complex algebraic
expressions); peak PD between problem types did not differ within each level in this graduation of difficulty, but between these levels (Bonferroni corrected).

might arise from a lack of relevant knowledge, for instance, of distinct levels of FI do not differ in basic learned mathematical
logical schemes, or even out of a malfunction of control mecha- fact retrieval as in multiplication up to 100. Higher NI, by con-
nisms (Moutier & Houdé, 2003). Low factual and procedural trast, is indeed associated with increased arithmetic fluency—a
knowledge in mathematics is associated with low NI, whereas FI is higher familiarity with corresponding declarative knowledge—
particularly related to executive control processes such as the inhi- leading to shorter RTs even in the easiest problem type a. Alto-
bition of prepotent responses (Friedman et al., 2008), for instance, gether, our first hypothesis about a better performance in
due to the intrusion of earlier, less effective strategies, which have individuals with high compared to average FI and NI has been
been shown to influence performance on algebraic word problems mostly confirmed. Moreover, different impacts of FI and NI on
(Khng & Lee, 2009) and mathematical achievement in adolescents performance could be characterized: FI compared to NI allows for
(Latzman, Elkovitch, Young, & Clark, 2010). faster responses especially in a new task.
Concerning RTs, individuals with high FI were, besides the Regarding the relationship between these impacts, it seems
lower error rate, also faster than individuals with average FI in that higher NI speeds up RTs for participants with average and
processing the tasks except in the easiest problem type a, involv- high FI, whereas high FI speeds up RTs only for participants with
ing only fact retrieval. Individuals with higher NI outperformed lower, but not with higher, NI. This appears quite reasonable,
individuals with lower NI in every task type. If individuals with when thinking of FI as a compensational ability for a lack of
high FI cope better with the task format in general than individ- relevant declarative and procedural knowledge by providing alter-
uals with average FI, we would have expected an advantage in all native procedures for problem solving (cf. Blair, 2006). How this
problem types, even in problem type a. Hence, the FI-related might be reflected in resource allocation and in the performance
advantage must be specific to another characteristic of the par- on tasks with different task demands will be discussed in the
ticular tasks. That individuals with high FI, but not higher NI, following sections.
were already faster in the control condition replicates previous
results (Neubauer, 1997; van der Meer et al., 2010) and supports Task Demands
the idea that FI, but not NI (Longstreth, Walsh, Alcorn,
Szeszulski, & Manis, 1986; Nettlebeck, Edwards, & Vreugdenhil, The second aim of our study was to predict the performance on
1986), allows individuals to deal faster particularly with new more difficult tasks by the performance on their constituent parts,
tasks. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that individuals with and in this context to additionally determine the impact of FI and
Arithmetic and algebraic problem solving A. Dix and E. van der Meer9

Table 2. Linear Regression Models for Problem Type f assumed to indicate further task demands beyond those that are
(Simplifying Complex Algebraic Expressions) already present in the constituent conditions. The need to gain a
broader overview, to plan more processing steps, to maintain a
Problem type fa number of interim results in memory, as well as the monitoring of
Predictor variables b
B SE of B βc r2 the complex calculating process and its results are possible candi-
dates. Further research is needed to shed light on these additional
Linear regression model for the whole sample (R2d = .68) processes. About 5 percent of the performance variance was
Step 1 (ΔR2 = .63, p ≤ .001)
Constant 3,154.53 1,190.68 explained by differences in peak PD and might reflect coping with
RTs problem type ca 0.64 0.28 .27* .03 these additional processes. We hypothesized that the performance
RTs problem type ea 1.46 0.30 .57*** .14 in the easier tasks and FI, but not NI, have an impact on
Step 2 (ΔR = .05, p ≤ .05)
the performance in the difficult tasks. As peak PD is related to
Constant 3,640.87 1,517.55
RTs problem type c 0.73 0.27 .31* .04
FI, but not NI—as we describe below—our expectation is fully
RTs problem type e 1.39 0.30 .54*** .11 confirmed.
PPD problem type c −7,194.82 2,365.43 −.34** .05
PPD problem type e 5,917.93 2,310.19 .29* .03
Intelligence and Allocation of Cognitive Resources
Linear regression model for individuals with average FI (R2 = .61)
Step 1 (ΔR2 = .61, p ≤ .001) Our third aim was to examine the role of resource allocation indi-
Constant 3,473.29 1,968.95 cated by PD dependent on FI and NI in mathematical cognition.
RTs problem type e 2.17 0.32 .78*** .61
Three contrasting hypotheses on the relationship between task
Linear regression model for individuals with high FI (R = .71)
difficulty and allocation of cognitive resources dependent on
Step 1 (ΔR2 = .63, p ≤ .001)
Constant 4,912.64 1,265.35 intelligence were described in the introduction: the efficiency,
RTs problem type c 0.76 0.34 .40* .06 effort, and resource hypothesis. In the experimental condition,
RTs problem type e 0.89 0.37 .43* .07 peak PD as an indicator of processing load (Beatty &
Step 2 (ΔR2 = .08, p ≤ .05) Lucero-Wagoner, 2000) was sensitive to task difficulty. Peak PD
Constant 4,592.42 1,443.19
RTs problem type c 0.81 0.31 .43* .07
increased with increasing task difficulty. Furthermore, as hypoth-
RTs problem type e 0.97 0.34 .47* .08 esized, individuals with high FI outperformed individuals with
PPD problem type c −7,239.36 2,613.77 −.48** .08 average FI while allocating more cognitive resources (higher PD)
PPD problem type e 6,848.19 2,677.90 .45* .07 to all tasks independent of task difficulty and composition. These
Linear regression model for individuals with lower NI (R2 = .77) findings support the effort hypothesis. Steinhauer et al. (2004)
Step 1 (ΔR2 = .61, p ≤ .001) found that parasympathetic inhibition, which results in the dila-
Constant 1,980.71 2,065.23 tion of the pupil and is related to frontal cortical functioning, only
RTs problem type e 1.74 0.47 .62*** .17
Step 2 (ΔR2 = .10, p ≤ .05) occurs in cognitively demanding tasks. However, as discussed in
Constant 2,680.43 2,543.49 the introduction, higher PD also goes hand in hand with sympa-
RTs problem type c 0.88 0.38 .37* .05 thetic activity and locus coeruleus activation, leading to higher
RTs problem type e 1.35 0.46 .48** .09 cortical activation and a stronger task focus (Aston-Jones &
PPD problem type c −11,761.50 3,894.70 −.52** .09
PPD problem type e 11,038.62 4,031.78 .47** .08
Cohen, 2005). Moreover, sympathetically driven differences in
Step 3 (ΔR2 = .06, p ≤ .05) task engagement might be associated with the better performance
Constant 9,393.18 14,575.90 we found for individuals with high FI.
RTs problem type c 0.75 0.35 .32* .04 The result of a higher resource allocation in students with high
RTs problem type e 1.25 0.43 .45** .07 compared to average FI is contradictory to the findings of Ahern
PPD problem type e 8,982.80 3,840.10 .38* .05
RAPM score −82.20 31.87 −.30* .06 and Beatty (1979), who reported a more efficient processing of
multiplication tasks in more intelligent individuals. This might be
Linear regression model for individuals with higher NI (R2 = .64)
Step 1 (ΔR2 = .64, p ≤ .001) due to the fact that the authors compared the resource allocation
Constant 1,340.90 1,785.13 of individuals based on SAT scores. This standardized test for
RTs problem type c 1.16 0.40 .40** .11 college admission in the United States includes a verbal subtest
RTs problem type e 1.38 0.38 .50*** .16 related to crystallized intelligence and a mathematical subtest that
Problem type: c = operations with fractions; e = simplifying advanced do not only stress FI, but also emphasize several trained skills
algebraic expressions; f = simplifying complex algebraic expressions. mainly associated with NI, such as knowledge about prime
B = unstandardized beta coefficient; SE = standard error; β = standardized numbers or the binomial theorem, to a large extent. As expected
beta coefficient; r2 = semipartial correlation coefficient. and in line with this, our study did not find high NI to be related
Significance of t value marked: *< .05; **< .01; ***< .001.
to a higher phasic PD. Actually, the absolute values of the peak
ΔR2 = improvement in the amount of variance in RTs explained by the
model. PD are—in line with Ahern and Beatty (1979), albeit not signifi-
PPD = peak PD. cantly—lower for individuals with higher NI compared to indi-
RAPM score = FI. viduals with lower NI. Altogether, our hypothesis concerning the
allocation of cognitive resources dependent on FI (effort or
resource hypothesis) and NI (efficiency hypothesis) has generally
been confirmed. Our results extend findings of van der Meer et al.
NI. The regression model of RTs for the most difficult problem (2010) to tasks with different levels of difficulty and of other
type f explained 68% of the performance variance. Differences in mathematical subdomains, namely, arithmetic and algebra.
the performance on tasks of problem types c and e—the constituent Furthermore, they point to the relevance to consider different
parts of problem type f—already predicted 63% of the performance intelligence facets and their specific relationship to neural effi-
differences in problem type f. The unexplained remainder is ciency when investigating higher cognition. The dissociation in
10 and algebraic problem solving 553
A. Dix and E. van der Meer

resource allocation dependent on FI versus NI for mathematical Conclusion

cognition suggests that the allocation of more resources by indi-
viduals with high FI is in fact one source underlying individual This study provided new insights into arithmetic and algebraic
differences in mathematical abilities, as we will discuss in more cognition and its relationship to FI and NI as sources of individ-
detail below. ual differences. We were able to demonstrate a central role of FI
for the allocation of cognitive resources in mathematical cogni-
tion. Moreover, in our study, high FI allows for a better perfor-
FI: A Compensational Mechanism? mance in arithmetic and algebraic tasks by allocating more
Looking at our results in more detail, we suppose FI to be a cognitive resources. This could be observed for all levels of task
compensational mechanism for a lack of relevant declarative and difficulty. Our results are consistent with the findings of van der
procedural knowledge as already shown by the interaction effect of Meer et al. (2010) on a geometric analogy task in the way that
FI and NI on RTs. This consideration is further supported by individuals with high compared to average FI allocate more cog-
several additional findings of this study. nitive resources. Though the amount of resources also depends on
First, PD was only included as a predictor for RTs in the regres- the task type and its difficulty, a higher resource allocation first of
sion model for participants with high, but not for participants with all contradicts the efficiency hypothesis. Interestingly, NI is also
average FI. Conversely, PD only predicted RTs of individuals with positively related to mathematical performance in our study and
lower, but not higher NI. This finding can be linked to the shorter even gives additional advantage for individuals with high FI;
RTs of individuals with high compared to average FI, which was however, it does not affect the amount of cognitive resources allo-
revealed as a trend only for lower NI. It suggests that only individ- cated to task processing. This strongly argues in favor of seri-
uals with lower NI employ procedures associated with greater PD ously considering the specific facet of intelligence (e.g., FI vs.
and FI, leading to better performance, whereas individuals with NI) when interpreting related differences in neural efficiency.
higher NI are able to employ task-relevant declarative and pro- Further, we were able to predict the computation time in the most
cedural knowledge. difficult task condition by using the performance on the easier
Second, individuals with high FI generally allocated more tasks to a remarkable degree.
cognitive resources than individuals with average FI. This was Therefore, the following conclusions can be drawn: In the
even shown for the number/symbol identity task, but only for field of mathematical cognition, high NI—meaning a high avail-
individuals with lower NI. This finding raises the question of ability of knowledge of relevant schemes and procedures for
which processes are reflected in the PD in response to our tasks. solving mathematical problems—allows for superior perfor-
Possible candidates are math-supportive operations associated mance, as one would have expected. In contrast, FI seems to
with frontal activity and math-specific operations associated with become relevant more likely when required knowledge is missing
parietal activity (Dehaene, Piazza, Pinel, & Cohen, 2003). due to high task demands or a lack of abilities (e.g., low NI). The
Steinhauer et al. (2004) reported parasympathetic inhibition that greater resource allocation in individuals with high FI indicated
is related to PD only in demanding tasks requiring frontal cortical by greater PD might reflect a stronger activation of the IPS and
functioning. Since we found differences in resource allocation for subsequently an increased reliance on language-independent
all tasks, the PD in response to our tasks does not seem to be numerical operations. Due to the difficulty of our tasks,3 individ-
linked mainly to this parasympathetic inhibition and frontal func- uals with high FI seem to apply these operations to all tasks
tioning, but rather to the sympathetic pathway. We cannot pre- leading to a generally greater PD and better performance com-
clude a contribution of frontal activity to this pathway. However, pared to individuals with average FI.
Landgraf et al. (2010) found the pupil not to be sensitive to Altogether, our study made the crucial point that the investiga-
frontal activity, but to activity in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS). tion of mathematical cognition can be enriched by combining dif-
The IPS is proposed as a language-independent representational ferent methods (psychometric tests, traditional behavioral
system of numerical quantity (Dehaene et al., 2003). We can measures like RTs and error rates, and psychophysiological param-
speculate that IPS activity is reflected in PD and hence that FI eters like phasic pupillary response), facets of intelligence (FI vs.
is supportive for corresponding processes (e.g., complex direct NI), and levels of analysis (task performance vs. resource alloca-
calculation). By contrast, NI might support linguistically tion). This allows for supporting or rejecting results on different
mediated operations (e.g., fact retrieval) associated with activity levels of scientific analysis. Also and most importantly, this com-
of the angular gyrus (AG). This explanation is based on positive bination is a powerful approach to shed light on dependencies and
correlations found between FI and IPS activity in a geometric interactions of factors that impact mathematical cognition. Future
analogy task (Preusse et al., 2011) and between NI and AG activ- studies should consider individual strategies for solving math-
ity even in tasks solely requiring the mapping between symbols ematical problems (e.g., using eye movement analyses; cf.
and numerical magnitude (Grabner et al., 2007). In our study, Vigneau, Caissie, & Bors, 2006) and explicitly investigate the
a greater PD in individuals with high FI might reflect a more impact of learning and automatization as one moderator variable
extensive activation of the IPS already present in the number/ proven to influence the relationship between the amount of cogni-
symbol identity task. It could have facilitated the representation tive resources invested and the behavioral performance (Neubauer
of numerical quantity, but only in individuals with lower NI. & Fink, 2009).
Individuals with higher NI rely on AG activity more strongly
(Grabner et al., 2007), which might not be reflected in
Altogether, we assume that FI acts as a compensational mecha-
nism that becomes especially relevant when task demands exceed
available knowledge or abilities (e.g., in low NI individuals). In this 3. Even simple multiplication tasks are rather demanding in this age
context, more research is needed. class—due to a lack of training.
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