Common magnitude representation of fractions and decimals is task dependent.
An important issue in understanding mathematical cognition involves the similarities and differences between the magnitude representations associated with various types of rational numbers. For single-digit integers, evidence indicates that magnitudes are represented as analog values on a mental number line, such that magnitude comparisons are made more quickly and accurately as the numerical distance between numbers increases (the distance effect). Evidence concerning a distance effect for compositional numbers (e.g., multidigit whole numbers, fractions and decimals) is mixed. We compared the patterns of response times and errors for college students in magnitude comparison tasks across closely matched sets of rational numbers (e.g., 22/37, 0.595, 595). In Experiment 1, a distance effect was found for both fractions and decimals, but response times were dramatically slower for fractions than for decimals. Experiments 2 and 3 compared performance across fractions, decimals, and 3-digit integers. Response patterns for decimals and integers were extremely similar but, as in Experiment 1, magnitude comparisons based on fractions were dramatically slower, even when the decimals varied in precision (i.e., number of place digits) and could not be compared in the same way as multidigit integers (Experiment 3). Our findings indicate that comparisons of all three types of numbers exhibit a distance effect, but that processing often involves strategic focus on components of numbers. Fractions impose an especially high processing burden due to their bipartite (a/b) structure. In contrast to the other number types, the magnitude values associated with fractions appear to be less precise, and more dependent on explicit calculation.