Seeing the forest for the trees predicts accumulation decisions


Stock-flow (SF) systems involving the accumulation of a stock over time are pervasive in many areas of human life. However, people make consistent mistakes when regulating such systems, a phenomenon termed SF failure. We introduce holistic (global) versus analytic (local) processing as a cognitive mechanism underlying the hardly understood SF failure. Using a classic SF problem (department store task), we found that (a) solutions to SF problems were up to four times higher when a global task format highlighting global structure compared to a local task format highlighting local elements was used; (b) a more global processing style is connected to higher solution rates to the SF problem; and (c) procedurally priming participants with more global processing results in higher solution rates to the SF problem. In sum, our results point towards global-local processing as a basic explanation for SF failure.

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