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Finger counting – cultural similarities and differences

25 September 2023

7 mins

Written by Dr Krzysztof Cipora, Lecturer in Mathematical Cognition at the Centre for Mathematical Cognition, Loughborough University. Krzysztof is interested in Spatial Numerical Associations, mathematics anxiety, and embodied numerical cognition. For more information about Krzysztof and his work, there is a link at the end of this blogpost. Edited by Dr Bethany Woollacott.

This blogpost is based on Krzysztof’s recent publication with Venera Gashaj, Annabel S. Gridley, Mojtaba Soltanlou and, Hans-Christoph Nuerk. Their research investigated finger counting with a remote community in Bolivia, the Tsimane’, and compared their strategies to those used in Germany and Britain. This paper is open access and linked at the end of the blogpost.

Educated adults still count on their fingers (sometimes)

Most of us will use finger counting in our daily lives, e.g., counting how many days are left until our holidays start, or counting syllables in a phrase. We might also use finger montring which describes when we communicate numbers to others with fingers, e.g., using three fingers in a noisy venue to gesture to a bartender that we would like three drinks1.

Does the way we count with our fingers matter?

Researchers in numerical cognition have been investigating whether the way we count with our fingers matters. Among the most investigated features is whether we start with our left or right hand. Some studies have shown that the hand you start with is linked to your reading/writing direction. In right-to-left reading cultures the proportion of “right-starters” (starting with the right hand) is larger than in left-to-right reading cultures. This has been interpreted as evidence that the two are connected. However, other studies have shown that in several European left-to-right reading cultures there are often many “right-starters”, sometimes a majority. So, reading direction cannot be the only factor at play.

Beyond industrialised cultures

Most studies in this field have been conducted in industrialised cultures in Europe, North America, and Asia; evidence from indigenous communities remains scarce. This limited evidence indicates that there are some cultures using whole body counting systems, in which numbers (up to about 40) are associated with specific body parts. However, there are several indigenous communities which do not have such elaborate systems but still count with their fingers; can we learn something from studying their finger counting and montring routines?

Most studies in this field have been conducted in industrialised cultures in Europe, North America, and Asia; evidence from indigenous communities remains scarce.

The Tsimane’ people and our study aims

One such indigenous community is the Tsimane’ people, comprising about 6000 individuals living in the Bolivian rainforest. They have limited access to education and limited contact with mainstream Bolivian culture. They live in small villages and engage with hunting and subsistence farming. Therefore, we decided to investigate whether Tsimane’ use their fingers to deal with numbers, and how they might do this. Our main questions were:

  1. Do they use finger counting and montring?
  2. How do their habits differ from those in Western cultures?
  3. Do their finger counting routines differ depending on how much education or contact they have with mainstream Bolivian culture?

We tested individuals (aged 15-85 years old) from three cultures: 121 Tsimane’ as well as 60 Germans and 61 Britons, so that we could make comparisons. All participants were asked to count with their fingers up to ten and to show numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9 with their fingers. We also measured whether they were predominantly right- or left-handed. For the Tsimane’ participants, we also recorded how many years of schooling they had and how often they visited a nearby town to measure their education and contact with mainstream Bolivian culture.

What did we find?

Tsimane’ commonly used fingers for dealing with numbers; they all understood the task well and attempted it although they occasionally made some errors. However, we observed quite remarkable cultural differences in how specific finger arrangements have been used for finger counting and montring. Notably, these differences were not only present between Tsimane’ and Western participants but also between German and British participants.

One of the most substantial differences was how participants montred number 3

One of the most substantial differences was how participants montred number 3: typically, British participants used their index, middle and ring finger; German participants had their thumb, index and middle finger open; whilst the Tsimane’ participants had their pinkie, ring and middle fingers open (see the diagram).

There was also a notable difference in which finger was used to start counting: all but one German participant started with their thumb and 80% of British participants started with their thumb (with others starting with their pinkie or index finger). In comparison, about 90% of Tsimane’ started with their pinkie.

When we looked at the Tsimane’ group in more detail, we saw that there was a larger proportion of left-starters among those who had more years of schooling (and thus potentially had higher literacy/numeracy skills and more exposure to left-to-right reading/writing direction).

There is no simple answer – reading direction is not everything

            Based on this study as well as previous research, we can say that finger counting is very popular across cultures and the exact way we count on fingers varies substantially both within and between cultures. We speculated which factors contribute to finger counting routines and while there are 3,628,800 (i.e., 10!) ways to count with our fingers, this is hugely reduced when applying some basic constraints. We considered the following three constraints:

  1. Starting from “outer” fingers, i.e., thumb, pinkie, or index (outer among the four fingers),
  2. Using consecutive fingers within the same hand (sometimes thumb at the end as the exception),
  3. Starting with the other hand only when fingers on the starting hand have “run out”.

So, applying these three constraints reduces the number of ways to count with fingers to 18 ways: 3 (starting finger: thumb vs. index vs. pinkie) × 3 (continuing finger: thumb vs. index vs. pinkie) × 2 (starting hand: left vs. right). Moreover, there are various factors which influence which of these 18 ways might be used, including:

  • Finger dexterity, e.g., some people might find opening a pinkie more difficult than others;
  • Hand dominance, i.e., some right-handers are left-starters whereas few left-handers are right-starters;
  • Enculturation and observational learning, e.g., we might adopt the way that we observe others using when finger counting (especially when we are a child);
  • Reading and writing direction, i.e., the direction in which we read influences the hand which we start counting with (right-to-left readers use their right hand to start counting);
  • Presence of Spatial-Numerical Associations, i.e., some people might associate numbers with space and this might influence how they count with their fingers;
  • Situated influences, e.g., unlike writing, finger counting can easily be done with the non-preferred hand if necessary.


Finger counting is widespread across cultures and associating specific fingers to specific numbers varies considerably within and between cultures. It remains an open question whether such specific mappings play a functional role in numerical cognition.


  1. Hohol M, Wołoszyn K, Nuerk H, Cipora K. 2018. A large-scale survey on finger counting routines, their temporal stability and flexibility in educated adults. PeerJ 6:e5878
Centre for Mathematical Cognition

We write mostly about mathematics education, numerical cognition and general academic life. Our centre’s research is wide-ranging, so there is something for everyone: teachers, researchers and general interest. This blog is managed by Dr Bethany Woollacott, a research associate at the CMC, who edits and typesets all posts. Please email if you have any feedback or if you would like information about being a guest contributor. We hope you enjoy our blog!

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