Abstract for: The more you see the less you “get”: On the importance of a higher-level perspective for understanding dynamic systems

This paper describes the design and outcomes of an experimental study that addresses stock-and-flow-failure from a cognitive perspective. It is based on the assumption that holistic (global) and analytic (local) processing are important cognitive mechanisms underlying the ability to infer the behavior of dynamic systems. In a stock-and-flow task that is structurally equivalent to the department store task, we varied the format in which participants are primed to think about an environmental system, in particular whether they are primed to concentrate on lower-level (local) or higher-level (global) system elements. 148 psychology, geography and business students participated in our study. Students’ answers support our hypothesis that global processing increases participants’ ability to infer the overall system behavior. The beneficial influence of global presentation is even stronger when data are presented numerically rather than in the form of a graph. Our results suggest presenting complex dynamic systems in a way that facilitates global processing. This is particularly important as policy-designers and decision-makers deal with complex issues in their everyday and professional life.