Illusion of Causality in Visualized Data

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39 Scopus citations


Students who eat breakfast more frequently tend to have a higher grade point average. From this data, many people might confidently state that a before-school breakfast program would lead to higher grades. This is a reasoning error, because correlation does not necessarily indicate causation-X and Y can be correlated without one directly causing the other. While this error is pervasive, its prevalence might be amplified or mitigated by the way that the data is presented to a viewer. Across three crowdsourced experiments, we examined whether how simple data relations are presented would mitigate this reasoning error. The first experiment tested examples similar to the breakfast-GPA relation, varying in the plausibility of the causal link. We asked participants to rate their level of agreement that the relation was correlated, which they rated appropriately as high. However, participants also expressed high agreement with a causal interpretation of the data. Levels of support for the causal interpretation were not equally strong across visualization types: causality ratings were highest for text descriptions and bar graphs, but weaker for scatter plots. But is this effect driven by bar graphs aggregating data into two groups or by the visual encoding type? We isolated data aggregation versus visual encoding type and examined their individual effect on perceived causality. Overall, different visualization designs afford different cognitive reasoning affordances across the same data. High levels of data aggregation by graphs tend to be associated with higher perceived causality in data. Participants perceived line and dot visual encodings as more causal than bar encodings. Our results demonstrate how some visualization designs trigger stronger causal links while choosing others can help mitigate unwarranted perceptions of causality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number8805448
Pages (from-to)853-862
Number of pages10
JournalIEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2020


  • Correlation and Causation
  • Information Visualization
  • Reasoning Affordance
  • Visualization Design

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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