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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Causal versus Associative Relations: Do Humans Perceive and Represent Them Differently?


Research has shown that visual diagrams facilitate people’s understanding of and communication about abstract relations. In addition, the distinction between causal versus associative relations is important in human reasoning However, previous research has not directly compared how humans represent these two types of relations through visual diagrams. The current study examined whether causal and associative relations differ with respect to how people cognitively represent and interpret them in a spatial context using diagrams. We found that participants perceived relatedness of causal relationships to be stronger than that of associative relationships. This difference was reflected in their drawing of diagrams. Participants connected variables that shared a causal relationship with a shorter line than they did with variables that shared an associative relationship. The results shed light on the difference between causal and associative relations, and suggest new directions for future research to explore the spatial component of causal reasoning.

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