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. However, there is an important distinction between information processing of the accumulation tasks, and how this information is retrieved and used for solving the tasks. We claim that understanding of the accumulation principle contains one necessary and sufficient condition: having a correct representation of the causal relations between the system parts, such an understanding being global and ordinal in nature. In an experimental study with college students, we test this hypothesis by systematically varying two dimensions of how one accumulation problem was presented: (a) type of visual search referring to whether people process the information given in an 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 global search enhances people’s understanding of accumulation compared to a problem format that induces local search, whilst the ordinal dimension is less significant. Implications for the current debate in the failure to understand stock and flow are discussed