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J Exp Psychol Appl. 2007 Dec;13(4):197-223. doi: 10.1037/1076-898X.13.4.197.

Understanding phylogenies in biology: the influence of a Gestalt Perceptual Principle.

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Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203-5721, USA.


Cladograms, hierarchical diagrams depicting evolutionary histories among (groups of) species, are commonly drawn in 2 informationally equivalent formats--tree and ladder. The authors hypothesize that these formats are not computationally equivalent because the Gestalt principle of good continuation obscures the hierarchical structure of ladders. Experimental results confirmed that university students (N = 44) prefer to subdivide ladders in accordance with good continuation rather than with the underlying hierarchical structure. Two subsequent experiments (N = 164) investigated cladogram understanding by examining students' ability to translate between formats (e.g., from tree to ladder). As predicted, students had greater difficulty understanding ladders than trees. This effect was larger for students with weaker backgrounds in biology. These results have important implications for evolution education reform.

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