Managing the Budget: Stock‐Flow Reasoning and the CO 2 Accumulation Problem

Topics in Cognitive Science 8 (1):138-159 (2016)
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The majority of people show persistent poor performance in reasoning about “stock-flow problems” in the laboratory. An important example is the failure to understand the relationship between the “stock” of CO2 in the atmosphere, the “inflow” via anthropogenic CO2 emissions, and the “outflow” via natural CO2 absorption. This study addresses potential causes of reasoning failures in the CO2 accumulation problem and reports two experiments involving a simple re-framing of the task as managing an analogous financial budget. In Experiment 1 a financial version of the task that required participants to think in terms of controlling debt demonstrated significant improvements compared to a standard CO2 accumulation problem. Experiment 2, in which participants were invited to think about managing savings, suggested that this improvement was fortuitous and coincidental rather than due to a fundamental change in understanding the stock-flow relationships. The role of graphical information in aiding or abetting stock-flow reasoning was also explored in both experiments, with the results suggesting that graphs do not always assist understanding. The potential for leveraging the kind of reasoning exhibited in such tasks in an effort to change people's willingness to reduce CO2 emissions is briefly discussed



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