Comprehensive meta-analyses of risky decision making in children, adolescents, and adults have revealed that age trends in disambiguated laboratory tasks confirmed fuzzy-trace theory’s prediction that preference for risk decreases monotonically from childhood to adulthood. These findings are contrary to predictions of dual systems or neurobiological imbalance models. Assumptions about increasing developmental reliance on mental representations of the gist of risky options are essential to account for this developmental trend. However, dual systems theory appropriately emphasizes how cultural context changes behavioral manifestation of risk preferences across age and neurobiological imbalance models appropriately emphasize developmental changes in reward sensitivity. All of the major theories include the assumption of increasing behavioral inhibition. Here, we integrate these theoretical constructs—representation, cultural context, reward sensitivity, and behavioral inhibition—to provide a novel framework for understanding and improving risky decision making in youth. We also discuss the roles of critical tests, scientific falsification, disambiguating assessments of psychological and neurological processes, and the misuse of such concepts as ecological validity and reverse inference. We illustrate these concepts by extending fuzzy-trace theory to explain why youth are a major conduit of viral infections, including the virus that causes COVID-19. We conclude by encouraging behavioral scientists to embrace new ways of thinking about risky decision making that go beyond traditional stereotypes about adolescents and that go beyond conceptualizing ideal decision making as trading off degrees of risk and reward.
Intelligence agents make risky decisions routinely, with serious consequences for national security. Although common sense and most theories imply that experienced intelligence professionals should be less prone to irrational inconsistencies than college students, we show the opposite. Moreover, the growth of experience-based intuition predicts this developmental reversal. We presented intelligence agents, college students, and postcollege adults with 30 risky-choice problems in gain and loss frames and then compared the three groups’ decisions. The agents not only exhibited larger framing biases than the students, but also were more confident in their decisions. The postcollege adults (who were selected to be similar to the students) occupied an interesting middle ground, being generally as biased as the students (sometimes more biased) but less biased than the agents. An experimental manipulation testing an explanation for these effects, derived from fuzzy-trace theory, made the students look as biased as the agents. These results show that, although framing biases are irrational (because equivalent outcomes are treated differently), they are the ironical output of cognitively advanced mechanisms of meaning making.
Fuzzy-trace theory is a theory of memory, judgment, and decision making, and their development. We applied advances in this theory to increase the efficacy and durability of a multicomponent intervention to promote risk reduction and avoidance of premature pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Seven hundred and thirty-four adolescents from high schools and youth programs in 3 states (Arizona, Texas, and New York) were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 curriculum groups: RTR (Reducing the Risk), RTR+ (a modified version of RTR using fuzzy-trace theory), and a control group. We report effects of curriculum on self-reported behaviors and behavioral intentions plus psychosocial mediators of those effects: namely, attitudes and norms, motives to have sex or get pregnant, self-efficacy and behavioral control, and gist/verbatim constructs. Among 26 outcomes, 19 showed an effect of at least 1 curriculum relative to the control group: RTR+ produced improvements for 17 outcomes and RTR produced improvements for 12 outcomes. For RTR+, 2 differences (for perceived parental norms and global benefit perception) were confined to age, gender, or racial/ethnic subgroups. Effects of RTR+ on sexual initiation emerged 6 months after the intervention, when many adolescents became sexually active. Effects of RTR+ were greater than RTR for 9 outcomes, and remained significantly greater than controls at 1-year follow-up for 12 outcomes. Consistent with fuzzy-trace theory, results suggest that by emphasizing gist representations, which are preserved over long periods and are key memories used in decision making, the enhanced intervention produced larger and more sustained effects on behavioral outcomes and psychosocial mediators of adolescent risk taking.
A framework is presented for understanding how misinformation shapes decision-making, which has cognitive representations of gist at its core. I discuss how the framework goes beyond prior work, and how it can be implemented so that valid scientific messages are more likely to be effective, remembered, and shared through social media, while misinformation is resisted. The distinction between mental representations of the rote facts of a message—its verbatim representation—and its gist explains several paradoxes, including the frequent disconnect between knowing facts and, yet, making decisions that seem contrary to those facts. Decision makers can falsely remember the gist as seen or heard even when they remember verbatim facts. Indeed, misinformation can be more compelling than information when it provides an interpretation of reality that makes better sense than the facts. Consequently, for many issues, scientific information and misinformation are in a battle for the gist. A fuzzy-processing preference for simple gist explains expectations for antibiotics, the spread of misinformation about vaccination, and responses to messages about global warming, nuclear proliferation, and natural disasters. The gist, which reflects knowledge and experience, induces emotions and brings to mind social values. However, changing mental representations is not sufficient by itself; gist representations must be connected to values. The policy choice is not simply between constraining behavior or persuasion—there is another option. Science communication needs to shift from an emphasis on disseminating rote facts to achieving insight, retaining its integrity but without shying away from emotions and values.
Risky decision-making lies at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic and will determine future viral outbreaks. Therefore, a critical evaluation of major explanations of such decision-making is of acute practical importance. We review the underlying mechanisms and predictions offered by expectancy-value and dual-process theories. We then highlight how fuzzy-trace theory builds on these approaches and provides further insight into how knowledge, emotions, values, and metacognitive inhibition influence risky decision-making through its unique mental representational architecture (i.e., parallel verbatim and gist representations of information). We discuss how social values relate to decision-making according to fuzzy-trace theory, including how categorical gist representations cue core values. Although gist often supports health-promoting behaviors such as vaccination, social distancing, and mask-wearing, why this is not always the case as with status-quo gist is explained, and suggestions are offered for how to overcome the “battle for the gist” as it plays out in social media.
Deaths from COVID-19 depend on millions of people understanding risk and translating this understanding into risk-reduction behaviors. Although numerical information about risk is helpful, numbers are surprisingly ambiguous, and there are predictable mismatches in risk perception between laypeople and experts. Hence, risk communication should convey the qualitative, contextualized meaning of risk.
Reyna, V. F., Nelson, W. L., Han, P. K., & Pignone, M. P. (2015). Decision making and cancer.American Psychologist, 70(2), 105-118. doi: 10.1037/a0036834.
We review decision-making along the cancer continuum in the contemporary context of informed and shared decision making, in which patients are encouraged to take a more active role in their health care. We discuss challenges to achieving informed and shared decision making, including cognitive limitations and emotional factors, but argue that understanding the mechanisms of decision making offers hope for improving decision support. Theoretical approaches to decision making that explain cognition, emotion, and their interaction are described, including classical psychophysical approaches, dual-process approaches that focus on conflicts between emotion versus cognition (or reason), and modern integrative approaches such as fuzzy-trace theory. In contrast to the earlier emphasis on rote use of numerical detail, modern approaches emphasize understanding the bottom-line gist of options (which encompasses emotion and other influences on meaning) and retrieving relevant social and moral values to apply to those gist representations. Finally, research on interventions to support better decision making in clinical settings is reviewed, drawing out implications for future research on decision making and cancer.
We review the growing literature on health numeracy, the ability to understand and use numerical information, and its relation to cognition, health behaviors, and medical outcomes. Despite the surfeit of health information from commercial and noncommercial sources, national and international surveys show that many people lack basic numerical skills that are essential to maintain their health and make informed medical decisions. Low numeracy distorts perceptions of risks and benefits of screening, reduces medication compliance, impedes access to treatments, impairs risk communication (limiting prevention efforts among the most vulnerable), and, based on the scant research conducted on outcomes, appears to adversely affect medical outcomes. Low numeracy is also associated with greater susceptibility to extraneous factors (i.e., factors that do not change the objective numerical information). That is, low numeracy increases susceptibility to effects of mood or how information is presented (e.g., as frequencies vs. percentages) and to biases in judgment and decision making (e.g., framing and ratio bias effects). Much of this research is not grounded in empirically supported theories of numeracy or mathematical cognition, which are crucial for designing evidence-based policies and interventions that are effective in reducing risk and improving medical decision making. To address this gap, we outline four theoretical approaches (psychophysical, computational, standard dual-process, and fuzzy trace theory), review their implications for numeracy, and point to avenues for future research.
The tenets of fuzzy trace theory are summarized with respect to their relevance to health and medical decision making. Illustrations are given for HIV prevention, cardiovascular disease, surgical risk, genetic risk, and cancer prevention and control. A core idea of fuzzy trace theory is that people rely on the gist of information, its bottom-line meaning, as opposed to verbatim details in judgment and decision making. This idea explains why precise information (e.g., about risk) is not necessarily effective in encouraging prevention behaviors or in supporting medical decision making. People can get the facts right, and still not derive the proper meaning, which is key to informed decision making. Getting the gist is not sufficient, however. Retrieval (e.g., of health-related values) and processing interference brought on by thinking about nested or overlapping classes (e.g., in ratio concepts, such as probability) are also important. Theory-based interventions that work (and why they work) are presented, ranging from specific techniques aimed at enhancing representation, retrieval, and processing to a comprehensive intervention that integrates these components.
McCormick, M., Reyna, V. F., Ball, K., Katz, J., & Deshpande, G. (2019). Neural underpinnings of financial decision bias in older adults: Putative theoretical models and a way to reconcile them. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 184.https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00184
Older adults face many growing challenges to their economic well-being that directly affect their autonomy and happiness. Increased medical expenses coupled with reduced mobility, impaired eyesight and hearing, and other external factors often lead older adults to retire and accept a fixed income that effectively decreases as they continue to age. This leaves less room for error and a reduced opportunity to recover from poor financial choices, such as those arising from scams and fraud of which older adults are often the target. Biological changes also challenge the decision-making processes of older adults, in particular, an older person's ability to manage personal finances (Lachs and Han, 2015). Age-related declines in the structural volume and functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), altered emotion/reward processing (E-RP), and altered connectivity involving the default mode network (DMN) all play a role in decision making, but compensatory mechanisms also exist (e.g., conserved gist memory; Reyna and Brainerd, 2011). In addition, recent evidence involving the DMN has been interpreted as challenging the traditional view that biased decision making stems from E-RP (Smith et al., 2015; Li et al., 2017). These and other findings suggest an alternative framework for understanding the neural network underpinnings financial decision bias in older adults. In this review, we contrast (a) an interactive relationship such that: DMN activation/connectivity reduces resources dedicated to the cognitive control system to regulate the reward system, increasing the influence of emotion/reward sensitivity on choices and subsequently increasing decision bias with (b) an alternative account of DMN activity that adds to traditional dual-process factors by linking subjective, internal representations to the DMN and to gist-based biases. We briefly review the literature in these areas and describe PFC decline, altered E-RP, and altered DMN in aging. These processes may together affect financial decision making in older adults. We begin, however, with a brief description of decision bias and how traditional dual-process theory is used to explain such bias.
This article provides an overview of evidence-based neurobiological models of risky decision-making, noting their implications for adolescent substance use. Drawing on brain and behavioral research, neural imbalance and fuzzy-trace theory are reviewed to explain developmental differences in preferences for risk (tolerating the possibility of bad outcomes to achieve larger rewards), time (waiting for larger but delayed rewards), and ambiguity (willingness to explore the unknown to achieve rewards).
Criminal behavior has been associated with abnormal neural activity when people experience risks and rewards or exercise inhibition. However, neural substrates of mental representations that underlie criminal and noncriminal risk-taking in adulthood have received scant attention. We take a new approach, applying fuzzy-trace theory, to examine neural substrates of risk preferences and criminality. We extend ideas about gist (simple meaning) and verbatim (precise risk-reward tradeoffs) representations used to explain adolescent risk-taking to uncover neural correlates of developmentally inappropriate adult risk-taking. We tested predictions using a risky-choice framing task completed in the MRI scanner, and examined neural covariation with self-reported criminal and noncriminal risk-taking. As predicted, risk-taking was correlated with a behavioral pattern of risk preferences called “reverse framing” (preferring sure losses over a risky option and a risky option over sure gains, the opposite of typical framing biases) that has been linked to risky behavior in adolescents and is rarely observed in nondisordered adults. Experimental manipulations confirmed processing interpretations of typical framing (gist-based) and reverse-framing (verbatim-based) risk preferences. In the brain, covariation with criminal and noncriminal risk-taking was observed predominantly when subjects made reverse-framing choices. Noncriminal risk-taking behavior was associated with emotional reactivity (amygdala) and reward motivation (striatal) areas, whereas criminal behavior was associated with greater activation in temporal and parietal cortices, their junction, and insula. When subjects made more developmentally typical framing choices, reflecting non-preferred gist processing, activation in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex covaried with criminal risk-taking, which may reflect cognitive effort to process gist while inhibiting preferred verbatim processing.
Developmental differences in mental representations of choices, reward sensitivity, and behavioral inhibition (self-control) explain greater susceptibility to risk taking. Ironically, relying on precise representations in reasoning promotes greater risk taking, but this reliance declines as adolescents mature. This phenomenon is known as a developmental reversal; it is called a reversal because it violates traditional developmental expectations of greater cognitive complexity with maturation. Fuzzy-trace theory (FTT) predicts reversals by proposing two types of mental representation (gist and verbatim), and that risk takers rely more on verbatim processing when making decisions. In this article, we describe the main tenets of FTT and explain how it can account for risky decision making. We also explore the neural underpinnings of development and decision making in the context of distinctions from FTT. FTT's predictions elucidate unanswered questions about risk taking, providing directions for research.
We provide an overview of neuroscience research on risky decision making, organizing findings in an integrative theoretical framework aimed at elucidating mechanisms that drive behavior. The concept of risk has been used to describe a variety of influences on decisions—including both the variance of outcomes and the potential for a negative outcome—each of which may have a distinct influence on neural processing. Armed with these distinctions, we examine neural substrates of reward and valuation, reviewing evidence that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) computes a common currency signal that allows comparison of rewards across domains (e.g., food and money). This common currency signal is modulated by the variables that shape decision making, such as gains, losses, and their probabilities. We review evidence that subjective feelings about the uncertainty and valence of outcomes (e.g., risk and loss aversion) follow from signals in the insula and that signals associated with uncertainty can be distinguished from signals of emotional salience in the amygdala. Representations of options in vmPFC/medial orbitofrontal cortex serve as inputs to a comparison process in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)/ dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), which reflects decisional conflict. Activation in ACC/dmPFC is greater when choices conflict with otherwise dominant strategies, such as gist-based simplification versus verbatim-based trading off, triggering cognitive control mechanisms in dorsolateral PFC. When value signals are translated into actions, prefrontal signals influence processing of neurons in the posterior parietal cortex whose activity is consistent with drift-accumulator models of choice. This tentative process model differentiates several independent contributors to risk-taking behavior and identifies levers of behavioral change that could be used to prevent unhealthy decisions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)
Psychology and Law
Hans, V. P., Reed, K., Reyna, V. F., Garavito, D., & Helm, R. K. (2022). Guiding jurors’ damage award decisions: Experimental investigations of approaches based on theory and practice. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000342.supp (Supplemental)
Theory and practitioner 'scaling' advice informed hypotheses that guidance to mock jurors should (a) increase validity (vertical equity), decrease variability (reliability), and improve coherence in awards; (b) improve subjective experience of jurors’ decision-making (rated helpfulness, confidence, and difficulty); and (c) have the greatest impact when it includes both verbal and numerical benchmarks. Three mock juror experiments (N = 197 students, N = 476 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers, and N = 391 students) tested novel scaling approaches and predictions from the Hans-Reyna model of damage award decision-making. Jurors reviewed a legal case and provided a dollar award to compensate plaintiffs for pain and suffering following concussions. Experiments varied injury severity (low vs. high) and the plaintiff attorney’s guidance (no guidance, verbal guidance, numerical guidance, and verbal-plus-numerical guidance) between subjects. Results support predictions that, even without guidance, mock jurors appropriately categorize the gist of injuries as low or high severity, and dollar awards reflect that gist. Participants gave a higher award for more severe injuries, indicating that they extracted the qualitative gist of damages. Also, as expected, guidance, particularly verbal-plus-numerical guidance, had beneficial effects on jurors’ subjective experience, with participants reporting that it was a helpful aid in decision-making. Numerical guidance, both with and without verbal guidance, reduced award variability in severe injury cases in all three experiments. Scaling guidance did not improve the already strong gist-verbatim correspondence or award validity. Both grasping the gist of damages and mapping that gist onto numbers are important, but jurors appear to benefit from assistance with numerical mapping.
Despite the importance of damage awards, juries are often at sea about the amounts that should be awarded, with widely differing awards for cases that seem comparable. We tested a new model of damage award decision making by systematically varying the size, context, and meaningfulness of numerical comparisons or anchors. As a result, we were able to elicit large differences in award amounts that replicated for 2 different cases. Although even arbitrary dollar amounts (unrelated to the cases) influenced the size of award judgments, the most consistent effects of numerical anchors were achieved when the amounts were meaningful in the sense that they conveyed the gist of numbers as small or large. Consistent with the model, the ordinal gist of the severity of plaintiff's damages and defendant's liability predicted damage awards, controlling for other factors such as motivation for the award-judgment task and perceived economic damages. Contrary to traditional dual-process approaches, numeracy and cognitive style (e.g., need for cognition and cognitive reflection) were not significant predictors of these numerical judgments, but they were associated with lower levels of variability once the gist of the judgments was taken into account. Implications for theory and policy are discussed.
Reyna, V. F., Croom, K., Staiano-Coico, L., Lesser, M. L., Lewis, D., Frank, J., & Marchell, T. (2013). Endorsement of a personal responsibility to adhere to the minimum drinking age law predicts consumption, risky behaviors, and alcohol-related harms. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law,19(3), 380-394. doi: 10.1037/a0032538.Despite minimum drinking age laws, underage college students engage in high levels of risky drinking and reach peak lifetime levels of alcohol dependence. A group of presidents of universities and colleges has argued that these laws promote disrespect for laws in general, and do not prevent drinking or related negative consequences. However, no study has investigated the policy-relevant question of whether students who endorse a personal responsibility to obey drinking laws, regardless of their opinions about the laws, are less likely to drink or to experience negative consequences. Therefore, we compared endorsers to non-endorsers, controlling for race, gender, and baseline outcomes, at two universities (Ns = 2007 and 2027). Neither sample yielded a majority (49% and 38% endorsement), but for both universities, all 17 outcome measures were significantly associated with endorsement across all types of analyses. Endorsers were less likely to drink, drank less, engaged in less high-risk behavior (e.g., heavy/binge drinking), and experienced fewer harms (e.g., physical injury), even when controlling for covariates. Racial/ethnic minority groups were more likely to endorse, compared to White students. By isolating a small window of time between high school and college that produces large changes in drinking behavior, and controlling for covariates, we can begin to hone in on factors that might explain relations among laws, risky behaviors, and harms. Internalization of a social norm to adhere to drinking laws could offer benefits to students and society, but subsequent research is needed to pin down causation and causal mechanisms.
Contemporary theories of decision-making are compared with respect to their predictions about the judgments that are hypothesized to underlie risky choice framing effects. Specifically, we compare predictions of psychophysical models, such as prospect theory, to the cognitive representational approach of fuzzy-trace theory in which the presence or absence of zero is key to framing effects. Three experiments implemented a high-power design in which many framing problems were administered to participants, who rated the attractiveness of either the certain or risky options. Experiments also varied whether truncation manipulations were within-subjects or between-subjects and whether both options were present. Violations of both strong and weak rationality were clearly observed in attractiveness ratings of options. However, truncation effects showed that these violations were conditional on the form of the decision problem. Truncation effects that involved adding or subtracting zero—that should not matter in almost all decision theories—showed that such rationality violations were attenuated when zero was deleted, but were amplified when zero was emphasized, per predictions of fuzzy-trace theory. This is the first such demonstration using attractiveness ratings of certain and risky options. Ratings also revealed that framing effects are inherently comparative: The attractiveness of a given option is a function of zero versus nonzero contrasts both within and between options. Indeed, we observed a losing-nothing-is-better effect that violates attribute framing and prospect theory such that a probability of losing nothing was rated as substantially better than a probability of gaining nothing, in accord with fuzzy-trace theory. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved)
Reyna, V. F., & Brust-Renck, P. G. (2020). How representations of number and numeracy predict decision paradoxes: A fuzzy-trace theory approach. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 33(5), 606-628. https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.2179
Higher numeracy has been associated with decision biases in some numerical judgment-and-decision problems. According to fuzzy-trace theory, understanding such paradoxes involves broadening the concept of numeracy to include processing the gist of numbers—their categorical and ordinal relations—in addition to objective (verbatim) knowledge about numbers. We assess multiple representations of gist, as well as numeracy, and use them to better understand and predict systematic paradoxes in judgment and decision-making. In two samples (Ns = 978 and 957), we assessed categorical (some vs. none) and ordinal gist representations of numbers (higher vs. lower, as in relative magnitude judgment, estimation, approximation, and simple ratio comparison), objective numeracy, and a nonverbal, nonnumeric measure of fluid intelligence in predicting: (a) decision preferences exhibiting the Allais paradox and (b) attractiveness ratings of bets with and without a small loss in which the loss bet is rated higher than the objectively superior no-loss bet. Categorical and ordinal gist tasks predicted unique variance in paradoxical decisions and judgments, beyond objective numeracy and intelligence. Whereas objective numeracy predicted choosing or rating according to literal numerical superiority, appreciating the categorical and ordinal gist of numbers was pivotal in predicting paradoxes. These results bring important paradoxes under the same explanatory umbrella, which assumes three types of representations of numbers—categorical gist, ordinal gist, and objective (verbatim)—that vary in their strength across individuals.
In the News
The Mystery of the Teenage Brain – Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviews Dr. Valerie Reyna