The effects of numeracy and presentation format on judgments of contingency

Cooper, Susan and Vallee-Tourangeau, Frédéric (2021) The effects of numeracy and presentation format on judgments of contingency. Memory & Cognition, 49(2), pp. 389-399. ISSN (print) 0090-502X


Covariation information can be used to infer whether a causal link plausibly exists between two dichotomous variables, and such judgments of contingency are central to many critical and everyday decisions. However, individuals do not always interpret and integrate covariation information effectively, an issue that may be compounded by limited numeracy skills, and they often resort to the use of heuristics, which can result in inaccurate judgments. This experiment investigated whether presenting covariation information in a composite bar chart increased accuracy of contingency judgments, and whether it can mitigate errors driven by low numeracy skills. Participants completed an online questionnaire, which consisted of an 11-item numeracy scale and three covariation problems that varied in level of difficulty, involving a fictitious fertilizer and its impact on whether a plant bloomed or not. Half received summary covariation information in a composite bar chart, and half in a 2 × 2 matrix that summarized event frequencies. Viewing the composite bar charts increased accuracy of individuals both high and low in numeracy, regardless of problem difficulty, resulted in more consistent judgments that were closer to the normatively correct value, and increased the likelihood of detecting the correct direction of association. Findings are consistent with prior work, suggesting that composite bar charts are an effective way to improve covariation judgment and have potential for use in the domain of health risk communication.

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