Reprinted from College of Human Ecology's Alumni Profiles
by Stephen D'Angelo
Lindsay Dower ‘17 spent her four years at Cornell working to improve the lives of both those within the College of Human Ecology and in the broader Ithaca community, truly embodying the mission of the college.
As a Human Development major and Policy Analysis and Management minor, working towards a career in health policy, she pursued coursework that allowed her to better understand the human condition in the context of healthcare. Lindsay took full advantage of the opportunities within the college to create an undergraduate experience that intertwined courses in behavioral neuroscience with those in healthcare.
She joined Professor Valerie Reyna’s lab for Rational Decision Making during her freshman year after learning about Reyna’s work in an introductory Human Development course. Further, Lindsay served as a Cornell Cooperative Extension Intern during the summer of 2014, bringing evidence-based curricula developed in the lab to middle school-aged campers at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills. Through a series of hands-on activities, she delivered an obesity prevention intervention to the campers, while completing a randomized controlled trial to test the effectiveness of the curricula.
The following year, she gratefully received a Human Ecology Alumni Association Grant to continue studying how people make decisions about their eating and exercise habits. Lindsay’s research then expanded to include a project on investigating the decision making behind medication adherence in Type I and Type II diabetics. Her passion for the projects in the lab earned Lindsay the role of Undergraduate Team Leader of the Health and Medical Decision Making Team when she was a junior. Lindsay led a group of over ten undergraduates in the lab, serving as a resource to help them engage with the material in meaningful ways.
Outside of the classroom, Lindsay was very involved with Alpha Phi Omega, a national community service fraternity with a chapter on campus. As a member of APO, Lindsay served as chair for the Loaves and Fishes project, during which she and other members volunteered to serve free, hot meals to those who needed them most in downtown Ithaca. Additionally, she played the flute in the Big Red Pep Band during her time at Cornell.
Risky choices about sex, drugs and drinking, as well as diet, exercise, money and health care pervade our lives and can have dire consequences. Now, a new book aims to help us understand the neural roots of bad decisions. The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making (APA Books) synthesizes the research in this relatively young field for the first time, and introduces new models of brain function to explain and predict risky behavior.
The harm caused by risky decision-making is enormous understanding how the brain processes risks and rewards is the key to unraveling the mystery of irrational decision-making in real life, said Valerie Reyna, Lois and Melvin Tukman Professor of Human Development, Director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in the College of Human Ecology and the Cornell MRI Facility.
We anticipate this work will transform the next phase of research in the field and inform policy and practice innovations that can save lives and improve health and well-being, said Reyna, who co-edited the volume with Vivian Zayas, associate professor of psychology at Cornell.
In the book, leading neuroeconomists, neuroscientists and social scientists discuss recent findings on why people take risks and how risky choices shift in different circumstances and across the life span.
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, March 8, 2017.
Charles Brainerd, professor and chair of the Department of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology, and 13 other scholars nationwide have been elected the newest members of the National Academy of Education (NAEd) for their scholarly contributions in the field of education research.
NAEd advances high-quality education research and its use in policy and practice. It consists of 209 U.S. members and 11 foreign associates who are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship related to education.
“It was not something that I anticipated and came as a surprise,” Brainerd said. “For me, this is another indicator of the international stature of the human development department.”
Brainerd joins fellow Cornell NAEd members Stephen Ceci, Ronald Ehrenberg, Robert Sternberg and Kenneth Strike.
Brainerd has published more than 300 research articles and chapters and more than 20 books. His research covers human memory and decision-making, statistics and mathematical modeling, cognitive neuroscience, learning, intelligence, cognitive development, learning disability and child abuse.
Within the field, Brainerd’s research is known for having had deep impacts on educational, developmental and cognitive psychology, and he is credited with major breakthroughs across both his theoretical and empirical contributions.
His current research centers on the relation between memory and higher reasoning abilities in children and adults, also focusing on false-memory phenomena, cognitive neuroscience, aging and neurocognitive impairment.
Academy members are tapped to serve on expert study panels and are also engaged in NAEd’s professional development programs, including postdoctoral and dissertation fellowship programs.
“It’s an opportunity to serve,” said Brainerd. “The national academy forms committees and study groups of leading scholars to work on important issues in higher education – important and prominent questions of the day – and provides advice and leadership on those questions.”
Stephen D'Angelo is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.
Valerie Reyna and Evan Wilhelms developed a new questionnaire for predicting who is likely to engage in risky behaviors, including, unprotected sex and binge drinking. Their questionnaire significantly outperforms 14 other gold-standard measures frequently used in economics and psychology.
The research of Professor Nathan Spreng and his collaborators sheds light on the basal forebrain region, where the degeneration of neural tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease appears before cognitive and behavioral symptoms emerge.
Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. International elder abuse experts met at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem.
Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study by Professor Gary Evans. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.
STUDENTS IN THE NEWS
Camille Sims '15 says fate brought her to Cornell and the Department of Human Development. And now it has propelled her to reign as Miss New York and to finish second runner-up in September's Miss America competition.
Brian LaGrant ’17, a human development major from New Hartford, N.Y., discusses his research on factors surrounding imitation among children and adults.
David Garavito, graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program, under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Reyna, is working with communities in New York and around the country with support from an Engaged Cornell grant for student research. He is working with coaches and student athletes to study the effects of concussions on decision making about risks.
ARTICLES ON THE WEB
Alzheimer’s early tell: The language of authors who suffered from dementia has a story for the rest of us
Adrienne Day writes about how Barbara Lust, professor in Human Development, and other researchers are studying changes in language patterns in early Alzheimer’s disease.
Listen to Associate Professor Corinna Loeckenhoff discuss self-continuity, or our perceived connections with our past and future selves.
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, Oct. 31, 2016
Researchers in the social sciences have been searching for a holy grail: an accurate way to predict who is likely to engage in problematic behavior, like using drugs. Over the years experts in economics, psychology and public health have designed hundreds of questionnaires in an attempt to understand who will binge drink or have unprotected sex – and why.
Ph.D. ’15, of Vassar College, have just taken a sizable step toward answering those questions.
In a new study, Reyna and Wilhelms have debuted a new questionnaire that significantly outperforms 14 other gold-standard measures frequently used in economics and psychology. The measure’s 12 simple questions ask in various ways whether one agrees with the principle “sacrifice now, enjoy later.” Their study, “Gist of Delay of Gratification: Understanding and Predicting Problem Behaviors,” appeared Aug. 10 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making.
“People who get drunk frequently, party with drugs, borrow money needlessly or have unprotected sex disagreed more with the concept ‘sacrifice now, enjoy later’ than people who didn’t do these things,” Reyna said. “Instead, they leaned more toward ‘have fun today and don’t worry about tomorrow.’”
Having fun is generally good, she said. “But not being able to delay gratification can interfere with education, health and financial well-being, and the impact is greater for young people,” she added.
The questionnaire is based on Reyna’s fuzzy-trace theory. It says people boil down their personal values into a simple, qualitative “gist” of an idea – such as “sacrifice now, enjoy later.” When they have to make a life decision, they retrieve that gist and apply it to their situation.
In contrast, prevailing theory, with many questionnaires based on it, says that people make specific, quantitative trade-offs known as “delay discounting.” For example, those measures ask questions like, “Would you like $10 now or $11.50 in a week?”
“People do size up the trade-off, but they don’t make their decisions on that analysis,” Reyna said. “They think, ‘sacrifice now, benefit later.’ And therefore they study for the exam rather than go out to the party. It’s not about the party per se. It’s about the life principle.”
The researchers conducted four studies to get their results, comparing the measure, the Delay-of-Gratification Gist Scale, against 14 others. The Gist Scale’s questions include, “I wait to buy what I want until I have enough money,” “I think it is better to save money for the future” and “I am worried about the amount of money I owe.” Money is used as a “stand-in” or proxy for tempting rewards.
The first study asked 211 college students to take the Gist Scale and other measures that predict poor financial outcomes. The second and third studies, with 845 and 393 college students, respectively, compared the new measure against others involving delay discounting. With 47 teens and adult participants, the fourth study compared the Gist Scale against a widely used measure of impulsivity.
The Gist Scale is not only more accurate, it’s also shorter and simpler – some other measures are more than twice as long. It is also gender and age neutral, meaning it can be taken by anyone.
Reyna points out that cultures all over the world have aphorisms that encourage the ability to delay gratification. That skill can improve with practice, she said.
“Sometimes we send young people very mixed messages about struggle. I think it’s extremely important for them to know that struggle and pain are part of life and to be expected,” she said. “Staying the course, keeping your eyes on the prize – these values make a difference. And they can be taught and they can be practiced.”
By Nora Rabah, Allison M. Hermann, Thomas W. Craig, and David Garavito
David Garavito, graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program, under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Reyna, is working with communities in New York and around the country with support from an Engaged Cornell grant for student research. He is working with coaches and student athletes to study the effects of concussions on decision making about risks. For his dissertation research, Garavito is developing a model based upon Dr. Reyna’s Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT) which integrates research on Alzheimer’s dementia (AD), behavioral economics and decision making, and neuroscience to study the perception of risks associated with sports-related concussions among people vulnerable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Garavito and undergraduates in the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making are working with a growing number of students, coaches, and administrators from high schools and colleges in New York (including Watkins Glen and Moravia high schools, Cornell University, and Ithaca College), Colorado, and Minnesota. Engagement with sports communities has provided the team with the opportunity to educate--and listen to-- the public about current research on concussions and how values or principles can affect perceptions and decisions about concussion risk. Garavito has found that coaches are very supportive of research projects that aim to help keep athletes safe and further knowledge about concussions. Many athletes have enthusiastically agreed to volunteer in Garavito’s studies. The student team also has been working with the Ithaca Youth Bureau and the experiences of coaches and educators at the center have been essential in the development of interactive activities to teach youth about the brain and concussions. The ultimate goal of the concussion intervention is to strengthen healthy values and educate people about risks, and the importance of reporting symptoms of concussions.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a form of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, which results in an accumulation of tau proteins in the brain, however, the onset and progression of CTE is related to a history of concussions. Athletes in contact sports are particularly vulnerable to CTE because many athletes fail to report concussions and their symptoms – a very risky decision that could result in brain damage and cognitive impairment. Using the FTT framework, Garavito and his team of undergraduates are studying this underreporting phenomenon.
Although current research on the underreporting of concussions has brought about the creation of laws mandating concussion education nationwide, research based on FTT has shown that not all education programs are equal. How people process information can have a profound effect on how they make decisions (Mills, Reyna, Estrada, 2008; Widmer, Wolfe, Reyna et al., 2015). Dr. Reyna’s research has shown that adolescents are more likely to rely on verbatim, surface-level details, whereas adults tend to rely on qualitative reasoning and the bottom-line gist of information (Reyna & Farley, 2006; Reyna, Estrada, DeMarinis et al., 2011). For example, if told an athlete has a 2/3 chance of having another concussion if they go back out on the field after having had a concussion on the same day, adolescents make their decisions about risk by considering the numbers and take the chance in order to play more sports because the benefits, to them, outweigh the risks. Adults, on the other hand, get the point that the mere possibility of a catastrophic injury, no matter how small, of getting another concussion (which could result in permanent brain damage or death), is not worth the risk for more playing time. This difference in information processing has not been studied in the underreporting or the perception of risks in sports-related injuries.
Many educational programs emphasize the acquisition of verbatim fact-based knowledge in the hope that these details will help the public understand and make better decisions. Unfortunately, this can lead to the opposite effect – giving people more detailed information causes them to engage in greater precise deliberation and leads them to take unnecessary risks. Football players, for example, may know verbatim facts about the symptoms of concussions, but still “gamble” by not reporting their symptoms, instead of choosing the “sure thing” of being safe and reporting them. This risky decision-making among athletes, in turn, is exacerbated by impairment from prior concussions.
Currently, Garavito, Dr. Reyna, and their team of undergraduates, are using scales based on FTT, to test several important hypotheses. These scales are sensitive measures that can detect if a person is relying more on categorical than fact-based thinking. Fuzzy Trace Theory predicts that categorical or gist-based thinking is more developmentally advanced and can deter people from taking dangerous risks. Garavito hypothesizes that adolescents affected by cumulative concussions may rely less on categorical thinking than non-concussed adolescents. This could lead concussed adolescents to engage in greater risk-taking, in general. Garavito and Reyna are studying whether FTT measures can cue developmentally advanced categorical thinking. Cuing adolescents to engage in categorical thinking will lead them to approach dangerous risks like adults, and is consistent with Dr. Reyna’s research on other types of risk-taking behavior (Reyna, Wilhelms, McCormick et al., 2015).
Nora Rabah is a Biology and Society major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Allison M. Hermann is the Research and Outreach Manager for the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making.
Thomas W. Craig is the Law, Psychology and Human Development Program Assistant.
David Garavito is a graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program at the College of Human Ecology.
For juries awarding plaintiffs for pain and suffering, the task is more challenging – and the results more inconsistent – than awarding for economic damages, which is formulaic. Now, Cornell social scientists show how to reduce wide variability for monetary judgments in those cases: Serve up the gist.
As an example of gist, juries take into account the severity of injury and time-scope. In the case of a broken ankle, that injury is a temporary setback that can be healed. In an accident where someone’s face is disfigured, the scope of time lasts infinitely and affects life quality. In short, “meaningful anchors” – where monetary awards ideally complement the context of the injury – translate into more consistent dollar amounts.
“Inherently, assigning exact dollar amounts is difficult for juries,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. “Making awards is not chaos for juries. Instead of facing verbatim thoughts, juries rely on gist – as it is much more enduring. And when we realize that gist is more enduring, our models suggest that jury awards are fundamentally consistent.”
The foundation for understanding jury awards lies in the “fuzzy trace” theory, developed by Reyna and Charles Brainerd, professor of human development. The theory explains how in-parallel thought processes are represented in your mind. While verbatim representations – such as facts, figures, dates and other indisputable data – are literal, gist representations encompass a broad, general, imprecise meaning.
“Experiments have confirmed the basic tenets of fuzzy trace theory,” said Valerie Hans, psychologist and Cornell professor of law, who studies the behavior of juries. “People engage in both verbatim- and gist-thinking, but when they make decisions, gist tends to be more important in determining the outcome; gist seems to drive decision-making.”
In addition to authors Reyna and Hans for the study, “The Gist of Juries: Testing a Model of Award and Decision Making,” the other co-authors include Jonathan Corbin Ph.D. ’15; Ryan Yeh ’13, now at Yale Law School; Kelvin Lin ’14, now at Columbia Law School; and Caisa Royer, a doctoral student in the field of human development and a student at Cornell Law School.
The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, the Cornell Law School and Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.
Update: On Sept. 1, 2015, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant for $389,996 to Cornell for support of the project “Quantitative Judgments in Law: Studies of Damage Award Decision Making,” under the direction of Valerie P. Hans and Valerie F. Reyna.
By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 17, 2014
Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and graduate student Evan Wilhelms are editors of a new book: “Neuroeconomics, Judgment and Decision Making” (Taylor & Francis).
Drawing on perspectives from the early roots of psychology through the latest neuroscience, the book introduces what we know about how and why people make decisions with economic consequences (e.g., saving money, donating to charity, choosing medical treatment). The volume, written by leading neuroeconomists, neuroscientists and social scientists, answers broad questions about the ways developmental, neurological and individual differences influence our choices; whether deciding quickly is good or bad; whether emotional reactions lead us astray or help; how decision processes change over the lifespan; and the nature of expertise.
“Ours is one of the few books on neuroeconomics, the relatively new field that looks at the biological origins of economic decisions and economic behavior in the brain,” says Reyna.
“The cutting-edge research featured in the book holds promise for improving practice in law, management, marketing, computer science and health care,” she says.
“Understanding how people process numerical information about risks and then make decisions based on this information, for example, will boost efforts to help patients make informed health care decisions and freely decide between treatment options,” she explains.
Reyna and her research team contributed two chapters, combining recent discoveries in neuroscience with Reyna’s “fuzzy-trace theory,” which proposes people represent information both as bottom-line gist meaning and as literal facts, but tend to rely on the simplest gist necessary when making decisions. They show that this reliance on gist representations is beneficial for making choices, helping people accurately predict how they will feel in the future about the outcomes of various decisions. Their next chapter discusses the processes underlying inconsistent or so-called “irrational” choices and sheds light on ways of improving judgments and decisions.
The book is an introduction to decision-making intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, economics, business and public health. Preparation of the book was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute and National Institute of Nursing Research.
Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.
By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, May 29, 2014
About one in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime – more than 200,000 this year alone. A simple blood test can determine if a woman faces increased risk due to genetic mutations, yet decisions about whether to get the test and what to do about the results are far from simple – a fact exemplified by Angelina Jolie’s choice to undergo a double mastectomy last year upon learning she carried a harmful BRCA1 gene mutation.
To help women grappling with these decisions, Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna and colleagues developed a computer-based system using artificial intelligence to mimic one-on-one human tutoring.
“To our knowledge, this is the first use of an Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS) in patients’ medical decision making,” said Reyna, professor of human development and director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.
The breast cancer Web-tutor, called BRCA Gist (Breast Cancer Genetics Intelligent Semantic Tutoring), is more effective in helping women understand breast cancer risk and their options than traditional educational materials, reports a study published online May 14 in Medical Decision Making ahead of print.
BRCA Gist provides customized instruction on breast cancer and how it spreads, risk factors, genetic mutation testing and the consequences of testing using an animated talking avatar that engages women in “dialogue” about breast cancer and can even answer women’s questions.
The Web-tutor draws on well-vetted, publically available information and expert advice from physicians, “but the crucial added ingredient,” said Reyna, “is that it effectively conveys the bottom-line or gist of the information.” And that’s what people rely on to make medical decisions, not detailed facts, she said. The key to the Web-tutor’s success, she added, is its basis in fuzzy-trace theory, a model of memory and decision-making that she developed.
To test the Web-tutor’s effectiveness, the researchers conducted two randomized-control trials involving more than 400 women. The studies measured knowledge gains and decisions about genetic testing after completing the new Web-based tutorial, viewing the comparable information from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) website or completing an unrelated Web-based curriculum.
The team found that those who participated in the Web-tutor scored higher on knowledge of breast cancer, genetic testing and genetic risk than those using the NCI website, and both groups scored higher than the control group. In making judgments about genetic testing for those with no risk, the Web-tutor helped participants understand that most women do not have known genetic risks and are not good testing candidates, the authors say. Their results support the concept that a gist-based intervention powered by artificial intelligence can be an effective tool to aid patients’ medical decision-making, they concluded.
The study, “Efficacy of a Web-based Intelligent Tutoring System for Communicating Genetic Risk of Breast Cancer,” was supported by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. The co-authors are Christopher Wolfe, Colin Widmer, Elizabeth Cedillos, Christopher Fisher and Audrey Weill of Miami University of Ohio, and Cornell graduate student Priscila Brust-Renck.
Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.