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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Decision making with visualizations: a cognitive framework across disciplines.

  • Author(s): Padilla, Lace M
  • Creem-Regehr, Sarah H
  • Hegarty, Mary
  • Stefanucci, Jeanine K
  • et al.

Visualizations-visual representations of information, depicted in graphics-are studied by researchers in numerous ways, ranging from the study of the basic principles of creating visualizations, to the cognitive processes underlying their use, as well as how visualizations communicate complex information (such as in medical risk or spatial patterns). However, findings from different domains are rarely shared across domains though there may be domain-general principles underlying visualizations and their use. The limited cross-domain communication may be due to a lack of a unifying cognitive framework. This review aims to address this gap by proposing an integrative model that is grounded in models of visualization comprehension and a dual-process account of decision making. We review empirical studies of decision making with static two-dimensional visualizations motivated by a wide range of research goals and find significant direct and indirect support for a dual-process account of decision making with visualizations. Consistent with a dual-process model, the first type of visualization decision mechanism produces fast, easy, and computationally light decisions with visualizations. The second facilitates slower, more contemplative, and effortful decisions with visualizations. We illustrate the utility of a dual-process account of decision making with visualizations using four cross-domain findings that may constitute universal visualization principles. Further, we offer guidance for future research, including novel areas of exploration and practical recommendations for visualization designers based on cognitive theory and empirical findings.

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