Making Sense of Dynamic Systems: How Our Understanding of Stocks and Flows Depends on a Global Perspective

Cognitive Science 40 (2):496-512 (2016)
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Stocks and flows are building blocks of dynamic systems: Stocks change through inflows and outflows, such as our bank balance changing with withdrawals and deposits, or atmospheric CO2 with absorptions and emissions. However, people make systematic errors when trying to infer the behavior of dynamic systems, termed SF failure, whose cognitive explanations are yet unknown. We argue that SF failure appears when people focus on specific system elements, rather than on the system structure and gestalt. Using a standard SF task, SF failure decreased by a global as opposed to local task format; individual global as opposed to local processing styles; and global as opposed to local perceptual priming. These results converge toward local processing as an explanation for SF failure. We discuss theoretical and practical implications on the connections between the scope of attention and understanding of dynamic systems



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