Tag Archives: decision making

Neuroeconomics-book-cover7-17By 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.

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Valerie Reyna
The book


By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, May 29, 2014

A screen shot from the BRCA Gist (Web-tutor) video tutorial that is designed to help explain the incidence of breast cancer in people with the BRCA mutations.

A screen shot from the BRCA Gist (Web-tutor) video tutorial that is designed to help explain the incidence of breast cancer in people with the BRCA mutations.

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.

Related Links:
Valerie Reyna
The Paper

Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, found that intelligence agents were more likely to be biased by the wording or framing of risky choice problems than college students or other adults. Her research is quoted in this story in Psychology Today on January 28th.

Experts tend to rely on gist-based representations of situations rather than instead of verbatim ones, in other words, experts are more likely to think of things in a summarized form rather than think about the exact numbers in a step by step fashion. This helps them to make decisions more quickly and to sort relevant from irrelevant information when making decisions. The downside is that they may be more prone to decision-making biases. Read more.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, December 10, 2013

NeuroRisky12-9Risky 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, professor of human development, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of 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.

An initial chapter by Reyna and Scott A. Huettel, neuroscientist at Duke University, sums up the research on how the brain responds during risky decision-making and introduces a new theoretical framework for explaining the mechanisms that drive behavior. The chapters that follow cover such topics as how risky decision-making changes dramatically from childhood to adolescence as a function of age-related changes in brain structure; the role of emotional regulation, self-control and personality differences in risky choices; and the social, cognitive and biological factors that shape risky behavior. The final chapter presents evidence for a new “triple” process model of how rewards and losses are evaluated in the brain, potentially resolving conflicts between current single and dual system theories.

The book is intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of social, cognitive and affective neuroscience; psychology; economics; law and public health.

This volume is part of the American Psychological Association’s Bronfenbrenner Series on the Ecology of Human Development, affiliated with the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, with authoritative contributions from leading experts in the field.

Reyna will discuss her new book in a “Chats in the Stacks” book talk Feb. 10 at noon in 160 Mann Library.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, July 11, 2013

U.S. intelligence agents – like the embattled Edward Snowden – are more prone to irrational inconsistencies in decision making than college students and postcollege adults, reports a study to be published in a forthcoming issue (as yet unscheduled) of the journal Psychological Science.

“With increasing age and experience, people are less likely to engage in literal, quantitative analysis and more likely to use simple qualitative meaning or gist when making decisions,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, and lead author of the study. “While the growth of experience-based intuition can enhance performance, it also has predictable pitfalls.”

For the study, 36 agents from a federal intelligence agency, 63 college students and 54 adults were presented with scenarios involving risk and asked to make choices – the options were systematically varied to omit information or emphasize gain or loss, while leaving the literal meaning the same.

For example: A dreaded disease is threatening a town of 600. Do you: Save 200 people for sure or choose the one-third probability that 600 will be saved and a two-thirds probability that none will be saved? Or: Do you pick the option where 400 will surely die, or instead a two-thirds probability that all 600 will die and a one-third probability that no one dies?  Both versions of the decision are equivalent—if 400 die, then 200 are saved.

While we would expect rational decision makers to treat such equivalent options the same, the results showed agents treated them differently based on superficial wording changes. Agents were more willing than college students to take risks with human lives when outcomes were framed as losses, and they were more confident in their decisions.

When lives are at stake, simple categorical distinctions like saving some or none become pivotal, Reyna said. According to her research, decision-making gravitates to the simplest bottom-line gist of options, which boils down, in the gain scenario, to saving some people versus either saving some or saving none. Decision makers choose the sure option because saving some lives is better than saving none. Conversely, in the loss scenario, the options boil down to some people die versus either some die or none die. Valuing none die over some die, decision makers choose the risky option, which offers the categorical possibility that none die.

“The irony is that being biased by context (gains vs. loss wording) is a hallmark of the most advanced thinking – the kind of intelligence that intelligence agents should have,” said Reyna “Our results shed light on the underlying mechanisms of decision making at work in intelligence agents and others who make life-and-death decisions.

“And framing questions, like some other laboratory gambling tasks, has been shown to predict real-world behavior,” she added.

The article, “Developmental Reversals in Risky Decision-Making: Intelligence Agents Show Larger Decision Biases than College Students,” which was co-authored by graduate students Christina Chick and Jonathan Corbin, and Andrew Hsia ’12, was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 13, 2013

Valerie Reyna


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $1.7 million to Cornell to enhance understanding of why adolescents are prone to taking risks.The study, which will compare differences in the brains of teens and adults when faced with risky decisions, will be the first to use the Cornell MRI Facility, a new, state-of-the-art center for neuroscience and other fields of research in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.

The project will bring together a team of economists, psychologists and neuroscientists to examine decision-making processes in adolescents and adults and shed light on competing theories about how the teen brain works.

"Research suggests that adolescents differ from adults in emotional reactivity, motivation and self-regulation, but substantial ambiguities remain about how these factors determine adolescents' risky decision-making," said Valerie Reyna, principal investigator for the grant, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility. "Our research will disentangle these key causal factors to better understand, predict and ultimately reduce adolescents' unhealthy risk-taking."

The team will answer unresolved questions about how adolescents' responses to rewards might differ from responses to losses or negative consequences and how desires, strong emotions or the way risks are presented may change responses to risk and to reward. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques performed on the 3 Tesla MRI scanner at the Cornell MRI Facility, the researchers will also look at how the adolescent brain reacts differently from the adult brain when making decisions about risks.

The universitywide facility is the newest addition to Cornell's imaging resources and will provide detailed structural and functional images for a broad range of scientific studies involving humans, small animals, plants and biomedical materials. Physicist Wenming Luh is the technical director of the facility.

Other investigators on the grant include William Schulze, the Kenneth L. Robinson Professor of Agricultural Economics and Public Policy; David Dunning, professor of psychology; Ted O'Donoghue, professor of economics; Brian Wansink, the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior; Barbara Ganzel, research scientist in human development; all from Cornell in Ithaca; and Henning Voss, associate professor of physics in radiology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Susan Kelly
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, April 24, 2012

Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) has announced the recipients of its biannual small-grant award for interdisciplinary research and conference support. The grants support a wide range of topics, from "Platonic Friendship and Social Olfactory Cues in Human Body Odor" (Vivian Zayas, psychology), to "Elections, Accountability and Democratic Governance in Africa" (Muna Ndulo, law and African development).

The ISS small grant program is designed to assist Cornell's tenure-track and tenured faculty working within the social sciences. It also provides funding for research led by junior faculty members, projects that will subsequently seek external funding, and/or activities that will lead to ISS theme project proposals.

The spring 2012 recipients and their projects are:

  • Shorna Allred, natural resources, "Civic Engagement, Civil Society Organizations and Urban Environmental Governance: Implications for the New Environmental Politics of Urban Development";
  • Christopher Barrett, applied economics and management, "Targeting and Impacts of India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme";
  • Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, development sociology; William Block, Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER); and Sarah Giroux, development sociology, "Cyber-Boosting African Social Science: Exporting the CISER Experience";
  • Ziad Fahmy, Near Eastern studies, "Listening to the Nation: Mass Culture and Identities in Interwar Egypt";
  • Eli Friedman, international and comparative labor, "Education Work in China: A Comparative Study of Beijing's Separate School Systems";
  • Don Kenkel, policy analysis and management, "Health Insurance Choice and Utilization";
  • Stacey Langwick, anthropology, "Toward Sustainable Health: Modernizing Traditional Medicine in Tanzania";
  • Aija Leiponen, applied economics and management, "Innovating the Smart Grid: Organization of R&D, Standards and the Electricity Industry";
  • Jordan Matsudaira, policy analysis and management, "Modeling College Choice: The Role of Preferences and Constraints in Producing Disparities in College Attendance Outcomes";
  • Andrew Mertha, government, "Policymaking under the Shadow of Death: the Policymaking Process under the Khmer Rouge in Democratic Kampuchea";
  • Muna Ndulo, law and African development, "Elections, Accountability and Democratic Governance in Africa";
  • Valerie Reyna, human development, "Fuzzy-Trace Theory and the Law: Testing a Theoretical Model of Juror Damage Awards";
  • Andrey Ukhov, hotel administration, "Time-Varying Risk Preferences and Asset Prices: Evidence from Lottery Bonds"; and
  • Vivian Zayas, psychology, "Platonic Friendship and Social Olfactory Cues in Human Body Odor."

More information on these projects is available online.

By Susan Kelly
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, May 7, 2012

Three years ago, Valerie Hans, professor of law, applied to participate in a Cornell project that would bring together social scientists working on how people make decisions. Her goal was to better understand how juries make decisions about damage awards -- an area that lacked a theoretical framework. "But it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," Hans said.

That's just one success story coming out Cornell's Institute for the Social Sciences' 2009-12 theme project "Judgment, Decision Making and Social Behavior." A dozen professors spanning economics, psychology, government, law, policy analysis and management, human development, and business shared office space and met weekly to advance research on decision-making.

Hans and Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and of psychology, for example, applied Reyna's model of general decision-making to how juries decide to award damages. "I've presented it to legal audiences, and there's a lot of interest in it," Hans said. "To have a theoretical model that's enriched by the kinds of new knowledge about economics and psychology that we were able to learn from our colleagues in the group was really fantastic." The pair has also co-written a scholarly article and applied to Cornell for a small grant to test the model, she added.

The project team also encouraged Hans to do something she may regret, she quipped: sign up for a 10-day neuroscience boot camp.

Research by economists and psychologists on how people make decisions is an area that has exploded with scholarly work in recent years, but Cornell is one of the few universities where top-flight economists and psychologists are talking to each other about such research, said project team leader Ted O'Donoghue, professor of economics. But the Cornell scholars, who are spread across campus, have rarely had the chance to design experiments or publish papers together.

"We said, if we put our economists and psychologists together in an environment that encourages them to engage in a more intensive way, let's see what emerges," O'Donoghue said at a recent project celebration.

What emerged were 85 scholarly publications, two major national conferences, regular seminars and public lectures with visiting scholars, two Cornell workshops, a slew of joint grant proposals and new research proposals, and countless casual conversations that advanced decision-making research.

In particular, the project fostered work at the intersection of law, economics and psychology, an area in which Cornell has many scholars, and catalyzed a major conference and a volume of research in that area. The project also laid the foundation for future research in cognitive neuroscience with a workshop on the tools of neuroscience, a major conference on the neuroscience of risky decision-making and a forthcoming edited volume, O'Donoghue said.

Other research included Peter Enns' (government) finding that public opinion influences Supreme Court decisions in real, substantive ways, even when the public is unlikely to be aware of the case before the court. David Dunning (psychology) suggested that the more a person wants an object, the closer she perceives it to be. And Benjamin Ho (Johnson School) determined that that so-called "apology laws," which make doctors' apologies for botched medical events inadmissible in court, result in the greatest reduction in average payment size and settlement time in cases involving severe patient outcomes.

"These models of decision-making have had a significant impact within political science, and you see them in sociology and other spheres as well," said Kenneth Roberts, ISS' Robert S. Harrison Director and professor of government.

ISS team

ISS team members standing from left, Ori Heffetz, Valerie Hans, Peter Enns, David Dunning, Emily Owens, Ted O'Donoghue and Daniel Benjamin. Seated from left, Jeffrey Rachlinski, Benjamin Ho, Valerie Reyna, Robert Frank and Vivian Zayas.

It's the interactions among 14 affiliated graduate students that may have the deepest impact, O'Donoghue said. "This is a group that is not tied down to standard traditions and is going to be much more willing to think outside the box."

Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 15, 2012


Professor Valerie Reyna said that teens take dangerous risks because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived awards, speaking on March 13 to New York City media.

Teenagers take risks that might give most adults pause -- speeding through a red light, binge drinking or having unprotected sex.

Contrary to popular belief, such behaviors are often not impulsive and don't occur because teens think they're invulnerable. Instead, says Cornell human development professor Valerie Reyna, her research shows that adolescents are aware of the potential dangers of their actions, but make calculated choices to "play the odds" because they believe "it's worth the risk" for the perceived rewards.

Sharing the latest evidence on adolescent brain development, Reyna punctured this and other myths for reporters at an Inside Cornell media luncheon March 13 at Cornell's ILR Conference Center in New York City.

Reyna's studies have revealed that adolescents tend to reason and assess risk via "verbatim-based analysis" -- where the mind focuses on precise details and facts and runs a complex comparison of the costs and benefits of a decision. Adults, on the other hand, more often use "gist-based intuition" to immediately understand the bottom-line dangers inherent in an action. Teen drivers may be inclined to race to beat a train, knowing there's a high probability they'll make it; adults would automatically sense that's a bad idea, realizing that it could be deadly.

"The calculation that teens make may be technically correct, but it ignores the categorical possibility of disaster," said Reyna of the College of Human Ecology. "If people are weighing the odds in potentially catastrophic situations, they're already on the wrong track."

To help vulnerable youths make smarter choices about sexual activity, nutrition and fitness, Reyna and Cornell Cooperative Extension partners are applying her research in a new extension-funded risk reduction project. Working with 189 youth ages 14-19 in Broome County, Ithaca, Queens, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, extension educators are teaching a gist-enhanced version of the Reducing the Risk curriculum identified as effective by the Centers for Disease Control.

Reyna developed two interventions -- one to reduce risk of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy and another to promote healthy eating and physical activity -- that teach teens how to apply gist thinking when temptation strikes. Through 14 one-hour lessons, students learn to quickly and automatically recognize hazardous situations and how to reflexively recall and apply their core values to sidestep such dangers.

"Even teens with strongly held values do not always retrieve those values when they need them," Reyna said. "They retrieve them later -- that's called regret. In risky situations, teens need to respond the way troops in battle do to gunfire: Don't reflect, just react and follow your values to get through."

"The students really responded to [the approach] and said how they had learned many of these things in health class but not in this way," said Eduardo Gonzalez Jr., a Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City (CUCE-NYC) educator who has taught the curriculum and who also attended the media session two other CUCE-NYC educators.

Initial findings support Gonzalez's impressions: Compared with control groups, students educated about gist principles were more likely to limit their sexual intentions and behaviors and number of partners, Reyna said.

Reyna also spoke about "The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning and Decision Making," a new book she edited that collects research from neuroscientists, educators and psychologists on how the teen mind develops.

The stakes, she said, are incredibly high when it comes to risky decision-making by teens. A wrong choice could lead to death or destroyed potential.

"But teens are not fated to negative outcomes from risky behaviors," she said. "We can give them strategies to avoid risk and turn around their life trajectories."

View the video of Reyna's Inside Cornell presentation

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, December 15, 2011 



Teenage brains undergo big changes, and they won't look or function like adult brains until well into one's 20s. In the first book on the adolescent brain and development of higher cognition, a Cornell professor helps highlight recent neuroscience discoveries about how the brain develops and their implications for real-world problems and how we teach young people and prepare them to make healthy life choices.

For the new book, "The Adolescent Brain: Learning, Reasoning, and Decision Making" (APA Books), Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director of Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research, brought together an interdisciplinary group of leading scientists to focus on brain development and higher cognition, which is necessary for students to learn math and science and make good decisions. Higher cognition is the set of thinking skills students use to manipulate information and ideas in ways that lead to problem solving and new insights.

"A major implication of the provocative research highlighted in this book is the contrast between adolescents' cognitive skills, which are at a lifetime peak, and their frequent inability to use this competence in everyday decision making," said Reyna, who co-edited the volume with Sandra Chapman, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas; Michael Dougherty, professor of psychology at University of Maryland; and Jere Confrey, professor of mathematics education at North Carolina State University.

"But the evidence suggests that the way young people learn, reason and decide changes [during this period] and can be changed," said Reyna. "We must move education beyond rote learning to fostering the cognitive skills essential for academic achievement and economic well-being in our knowledge-based economy. Higher cognition is a foundation critical for individuals and our country to be competitive. This volume introduces a new framework for interdisciplinary collaboration among scientists in neuroscience, psychology and education."

"The Adolescent Brain" addresses the major changes in memory, learning and decision making experienced by adolescents as they mature, beginning with a review of the changes in brain anatomy and physiology based on extensive neuroimaging studies. The ensuing chapters examine the developing capacity of the adolescent brain, covering such topics as the underpinnings of intelligence and problem solving, strategies for training teen reasoning abilities, effectively teaching mathematical concepts, the effects of emotion on reasoning, and factors that promote teen engagement in health-related behaviors.

The book wraps up with a chapter by Reyna and Ph.D. student Christina Chick that integrates the behavioral and neuroscience evidence in a process model of adolescent risky decision making. Chick and Reyna explain, for example, how massive pruning of gray matter in late adolescence fits with the growth of adolescents' ability to connect the dots and understand the underlying meaning of situations. This gist thinking facilitates recognition of danger and protects against unhealthy risk-taking, they say.

The book is intended for researchers, students and professionals in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and psychology and for education policymakers and educators, especially in mathematics.

Reyna will present a talk on the "Adolescent Brain" March 1 at 4-5:30 p.m., 160 Mann Library.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.