Causal Support: Modeling Causal Inferences with Visualizations

Alex Kale, Yifan Wu, Jessica Hullman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Analysts often make visual causal inferences about possible data-generating models. However, visual analytics (VA) software tends to leave these models implicit in the mind of the analyst, which casts doubt on the statistical validity of informal visual 'insights'. We formally evaluate the quality of causal inferences from visualizations by adopting causal support - a Bayesian cognition model that learns the probability of alternative causal explanations given some data - as a normative benchmark for causal inferences. We contribute two experiments assessing how well crowdworkers can detect (1) a treatment effect and (2) a confounding relationship. We find that chart users' causal inferences tend to be insensitive to sample size such that they deviate from our normative benchmark. While interactively cross-filtering data in visualizations can improve sensitivity, on average users do not perform reliably better with common visualizations than they do with textual contingency tables. These experiments demonstrate the utility of causal support as an evaluation framework for inferences in VA and point to opportunities to make analysts' mental models more explicit in VA software.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1150-1160
Number of pages11
JournalIEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2022


  • Causal inference
  • Contingency tables
  • Data cognition
  • Visualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Signal Processing
  • Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition
  • Computer Graphics and Computer-Aided Design


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