Put you in the problem: effects of self-pronouns on mathematical problem solving

Sheila J. Cunningham*, Zahra Ahmed, Joshua March, Karen Golden, Charlotte Wilks, Josephine Ross, Janet F. McLean

*Corresponding author for this work

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Self-cues such as personal pronouns are known to elicit processing biases, such as attention capture and prioritisation in working memory. This may impact the performance of tasks that have a high attentional load like mathematical problem-solving. Here, we compared the speed and accuracy with which children solved numerical problems that included either the self-cue “you,” or a different character name. First, we piloted a self-referencing manipulation with N = 52, 7 to 11 year-olds, testing performance on addition and subtraction problems that had either a single referent (“You”/“Sam”) or more than one referent. We took into account operation and positioning of the pronoun and also measured performance on attention and working memory tasks. We found a robust accuracy advantage for problems that included “you,” regardless of how many characters were included. The accuracy advantage for problems with a self-pronoun was not statistically associated with individual differences in attention or working memory. In our main study (9 to 11 year-olds, N = 144), we manipulated problem difficulty by creating consistently and inconsistently worded addition and subtraction problems. We found significantly higher speed and accuracy for problems that included “you.” However, this effect varied by task difficulty, with the self-pronoun effect being strongest in the most difficult inconsistently worded, subtraction problems. The advantage of problems with a self-pronoun was not associated with individual differences in working memory. These findings suggest that self-cues like the pronoun “you” can be usefully applied in numerical processing tasks, an effect that may be attributable to the effects of self-cues on attention.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Early online date27 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Apr 2023


  • Self
  • Self-referencing
  • Problem-solving
  • Attention
  • Numeracy
  • Development


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