Spatial Reasoning With External Visualizations: What Matters Is What You See, Not Whether You Interact

Madeleine Keehner, Mary Hegarty, Cheryl Cohen, Peter Khooshabeh, Daniel R. Montello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    137 Citations (Scopus)


    Three experiments examined the effects of interactive visualizations and spatial abilities on a task requiring participants to infer and draw cross sections of a three-dimensional (3D) object. The experiments manipulated whether participants could interactively control a virtual 3D visualization of the object while performing the task, and compared participants who were allowed interactive control of the visualization to those who were not allowed control. In Experiment 1, interactivity produced better performance than passive viewing, but the advantage of interactivity disappeared in Experiment 2 when visual input for the two conditions in a yoked design was equalized. In Experiments 2 and 3, differences in how interactive participants manipulated the visualization were large and related to performance. In Experiment 3, non-interactive participants who watched optimal movements of the display performed as well as interactive participants who manipulated the visualization effectively and better than interactive participants who manipulated the visualization ineffectively. Spatial ability made an independent contribution to performance on the spatial reasoning task, but did not predict patterns of interactive behavior. These experiments indicate that providing participants with active control of a computer visualization does not necessarily enhance task performance, whereas seeing the most task-relevant information does, and this is true regardless of whether the task-relevant information is obtained actively or passively.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1099-1132
    Number of pages34
    JournalCognitive Science
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


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