Flexibility in data interpretation: Effects of representational format

Braithwaite, D. W., & Goldstone, R. L. (2013).  Flexibility in data interpretation: Effects of representational format.  Frontiers in Psychology, 4:980, 1-16. 

Graphs and tables differentially support performance on specific tasks. For tasks requiring reading off single data points, tables are as good as or better than graphs, while for tasks involving relationships among data points, graphs often yield better performance. However, the degree to which graphs and tables support flexibility across a range of tasks is not well-understood. In two experiments, participants detected main and interaction effects in line graphs and tables of bivariate data. Graphs led to more efficient performance, but also lower flexibility, as indicated by a larger discrepancy in performance across tasks. In particular, detection of main effects of variables represented in the graph legend was facilitated relative to detection of main effects of variables represented in the x-axis. Graphs may be a preferable representational format when the desired task or analytical perspective is known in advance, but may also induce greater interpretive bias than tables, necessitating greater care in their use and design.

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