Abstract for: Do People Possess a Global and Ordinal Understanding of Accumulation? An Experimental Study

People’s seemingly poor ability to understand accumulation principles is well- documented. We argue for a distinction between understanding of the accumulation principle, e.g. how the behaviour of the stock is related to its flows, and application of this information, e.g. solving an accumulation problem where participants need to numerically integrate the flows. We argue that understanding of the accumulation principle contains one necessary and sufficient condition: having a correct representation of the causal relations between the system parts, and that such an understanding is global and ordinal in nature. We test this hypothesis in an experimental study by systematically varying two dimensions of how one accumulation problem is presented: (a) type of visual search referring to whether people process the information given in a analytical (local) or holistic (global) manner; and (b) type of information retrieved, referring to whether the information people extract is categorical or ordinal in nature. As expected, we find that a problem format that induces both global search and the retrieval of ordinal information enhances people’s understanding of accumulation compared to a problem format that induces local search and the retrieval of categorical information.