Adolescent Risky Decision Making


The Research

Most interventions to reduce risk taking aim to enhance the accuracy of risk perceptions, to overcome adolescents’ belief that they are invulnerable, and to transform intuitive, biased adolescent decision makers into analytical, unbiased adults. Ironically, according to the data, each of these aims is misguided. To the extent that adolescents base decisions on precise notions of risk, enhancing accuracy is likely to lower some risk perceptions and thereby increase risk taking. Because adolescents already believe they are at greater risk than adults, and objectively higher-risk adolescents often correctly believe that they are at greater risk than lower-risk adolescents are, devoting energy to combating feelings of invulnerability would seem to be a waste. Adolescents take risks even though they realize that they are vulnerable to undesirable consequences; according to fuzzy-trace theory, they are taking calculated risks that are ‘‘worth it’’ from a compensatory quantitative perspective. [From Reyna, V.F. & Farley, F. (2006)]

The Impact

The outreach aspects of the research include faculty and students educating youth about scientific research, delivering a CDC-approved effective health curricula designed to reduce unhealthy risk taking, and serving as role models to high school and elementary students.  

In the News

KCOY12 Central Coast News - Santa Barbara, CA (2012). Professor explains deadly 'choking game' logicKCOY12 Central Coast News. Retrieved April 19, 2012 from http://www.kcoy.com/story/17540589/2012/04/professor-explains-deadly-ch….

Szalavitz, M. (2012). Why the teen brain is drawn to risk. TIME.com. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from http://healthland.time.com/2012/10/02/why-the-teen-brain-is-drawn-to-ri….

In Print

Reyna, V. F., & Mills, B. A.  (2014).  Theoretically motivated interventions for reducing sexual risk taking in adolescence: A randomized controlled experiment applying fuzzy-trace theory.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(4), 1627-1648. doi: 10.1037/a0036717

Reyna, V. F., Chick, C. F., Corbin, J. C., & Hsia, A. N. (2014).Developmental reversals in risky decision-making: Intelligence agents show larger decision biases than college students. Psychological Science, 25(1), 76-84. doi: 10.1177/0956797613497022

Reyna, V. F., & Zayas, V. (2014). The neuroscience of risky decision making. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Reyna, V. F., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision-making: Implications for theory, practice, and public policy. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7(1), 1-44.


Medical Decision Making


The Research

Fuzzy-Trace Theory has led to new discoveries, such as the memory independence effect (that reasoning accuracy is independent of memory accuracy);  that reliance on gist-based intuition increases with development;that such intuition reduces unhealthy risk taking;  that disentangling and making set relations transparent reduces errors in probability judgment such as base rate neglect; and that reliance on verbatim memory can impair reasoning performance.  Fuzzy Trace Theory has also been extended to how laypersons (e.g., patients) and health care providers (e.g., physicians) understand, process, and apply representations of health relevant information in a variety of contexts, including HIV prevention, cardiovascular disease, surgical risk, genetic risk, and cancer prevention and control. According to Fuzzy Trace Theory, judgments and decisions, and, consequently, behavior are affected by the gist that people understand, rather than the verbatim facts they are presented with. [From Reyna, V.F. (2008). A theory of medical decision making and health: Fuzzy trace theory.]

The Impact

When it comes to making medical decisions, research indicates that patients are not necessarily better informed just because they may have the all facts and figures. The findings from this area of Dr. Reyna's research are used to make practical suggestions for educators and medical providers on how to better communicate risk so that patients can make the most informed decisions.

In the News

Booker, K. (2011). Reyna examines why some reject vaccination despite record of successChronicleOnline. Retrieved July 20, 2011 from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July11/ReynaVaccine.htm.

In Print

Reyna, V. F., Nelson, W. L., Han, P. K., & Pignone, M. P. (in press). Decision making and cancer. American Psychologist

Wolfe, C. R., Reyna, V. F., Widmer, C. L., Cedillos, E. M., Fisher, C. R., Brust-Renck, P. G., & Weil, A. M. (2014). Efficacy of a web-based intelligent tutoring system for communicating genetic risk of breast cancer: A fuzzy-trace theory approach. Medical Decision Making. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0272989X14535983

Reyna, V.F. (2008). A theory of medical decision making and health: Fuzzy trace theory. Medical Decision Making, 28(6), 850-865.


Psychology and the Law

The Research

Do the emotional valence and arousal of events distort children’s memories? Do valence and arousal modulate counterintuitive age increases in false memory? We investigated those questions in children, adolescents, and adults using the Cornell/Cortland Emotion Lists, a word list pool that induces false memories and in which valence and arousal can be manipulated factorially. False memories increased with age for unpresented semantic associates of word lists, and net accuracy (the ratio of true memory to total memory) decreased with age. These surprising developmental trends were more pronounced for negatively valenced materials than for positively valenced materials, they were more pronounced for high-arousal materials than for low-arousal materials, and developmental increases in the effects of arousal were small in comparison with developmental increases in the effects of valence. These findings have ramifications for legal applications of false memory research; materials that share the emotional hallmark of crimes (events that are negatively valenced and arousing) produced the largest age increases in false memory and the largest age declines in net accuracy. [from Brainerd, C. J., Holliday, R. E., Reyna, V. F., Yang, Y., & Toglia, M. P. (2010)]

The Impact  

The findings of this program of research on memory and cognition are used in forensic contexts to improve interviewing techniques for child witnesses and victims, so that ultimately their testimony can be a more reliable source of evidence to identify perpetrators.

In the News 

Booker, K. (2011). False memories lack sensory and other details, study findsChronicleOnline. Retrieved June 3, 2011 from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April11/FalseMemories.html.

National Science Foundation (03/2008). Children's Memory May Be More Reliable Than Adults' In Court Cases.ScienceDaily.

In Print

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

Reyna, V. F., Estrada, S. M., DeMarinis, J. A., Myers, R. M., Stanisz, J. M., & Mills, B. A. (2011). Neurobiological and memory models of risky decision making in adolescents versus young adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(5), 1125-1142. doi:10.1037/a0023943

Hans, V.P., & Reyna, V.F. (2011).To dollars from sense: Qualitative to quantitative translation in jury damage awards. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 8(S1), 120-147. doi:10.1111/j.1740-1461.2011.01233.x

Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. F., & Ceci, S. J. (2008). Developmental reversals in false memory: A review of data and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 343-382.


Aging and Cognitive Neuroscience

The Research

Memory declines, especially in recall, are hallmarks of healthy aging and conversion to cognitive impairment. Using highly sensitive mathematical modeling techniques, we improve the ability of clinical recall tests to predict future cognitive impairment and to diagnose current impairment. Our research focuses on one of the most widely used clinical tests of such declines, the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT).  This research applies state-of-the-art mathematical models to clinical tests of memory to dramatically improve such tests’ ability to predict future cognitive impairment in older adults and to diagnose current impairment. Findings will be used to develop low-burden tools that remove the noise for such tests and provide scores for the component memory process that are associated with conversion to impairment.

In the News

McKain, J. (2011). Researchers connect gene to precondition for Alzheimer'sChronicleOnline. Retrieved April 6, 2010 from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July11/AlzheimersGene.html.

Gold, L. (2010). Researchers develop simple tools to predict cognitive decline in agingChronicle Online.

In Print

Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. F., Gomes, C. F. A., Kenney, A. E., Gross, C. J., Taub, E. S., Spreng, R. N., & Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. (2014). Dual-retrieval models and neurocognitive impairment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(1), 41-65. doi: 10.1037/a0034057

Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. F., Petersen, R. G., Smith, G. E., Kenney, A. E., Gross, C. J., Taub, E. S., Plassman, B. L., & Fisher, G. G.  (2013).  The apolipoprotein E genotype predicts longitudinal transitions to mild cognitive impairment but not to Alzheimer's dementia: Findings from a nationally representative study.  Neuropsychology, 27(1), 80-94. doi:10.1037/a0030855