Tag Archives: decision making

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.


Videos are now online from the 2011 Bronfenbrenner Conference, “The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making.”

At the conference, neuroscientists, neuroeconomists and social scientists explored scientific theories about the brain mechanisms underlying risky decision-making, paving the way for translation of basic science into policy and practice.

The conference, co-organized by Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and co-director for Cornell's new Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility, and Vivian Zayas, assistant professor of psychology, drew scholars from as far away as Europe to share research on such topics as brain maturation, neural responses to rewards and punishments at different ages, emotional regulation and self-control. Many of those who participated are founders in their field.


Antoine Bechara, University of Southern California
Eveline Crone, Leiden University
Paul Glimcher, New York University
Jay Giedd, National Institute of Mental Health
Scott Huettel, Duke University
Brian Knutson, Stanford University
Beatriz Luna, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
Kevin Ochsner, Columbia University
Philip Zelazo, University of Minnesota


Presentations, discussions, Q & A, and panel conversations

Article: Experts explore links between risk-taking, brain mechanisms


Valerie Reyna


The pervasive importance of decision making in our lives has made it a critical subject for research. This quick review of the historyof decision science and the scholars who made the field includes our own Valerie Reyna, professor of human development and of psychology and co-director of Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research. Read the full story

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 7, 2011

Anthony Bechara

Conference participants Antoine Bechara and Kevin Ochsner. Photo by Jason Koski, University Photography

Most diseases people die from are those borne of bad choices. Whether the decision is to have unprotected sex, smoke, drink and drive, not save for retirement, or to eat fries with that burger, risky decisions permeate our lives, sometimes with disastrous consequences, which is why researchers gathered on campus Sept. 22-23 to better understand risk-taking.

At the Third Biennial Urie Bronfenbrenner Conference, "The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making," neuroscientists, neuroeconomists and social scientists explored scientific theories about the brain mechanisms underlying risky decision-making, paving the way for translation of basic science into policy and practice.

"From neurons to basic psychological processes, such as memory and meaning, to complex social and economic behavior, we need to build a dialogue across disciplines," said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and co-director for Cornell's Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research. "We need a common language and collaboration to improve educational and health outcomes and to advance neuroscience research."

The conference, co-organized by Reyna and Vivian Zayas, Cornell assistant professor of psychology, drew scholars from as far away as Europe to share research on such topics as brain maturation, neural responses to rewards and punishments at different ages, emotional regulation and self-control.

Many of those who participated are founders in their field. Paul Glimcher, a professor in New York University's Center for Neural Science and of psychology and economics, for example, literally wrote the book on neuroeconomics in 2003 when he released his seminal work on the biological foundations of economic behavior. At the conference, he reported on some of his findings, such as work that suggests that neural networks are connected -- hungry people, for example, make riskier decisions not just about food, but also about money.

Antoine Bechara, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, researches the decision-making capabilities of patients with brain damage, such as the case of the 40-cigarette-a-day smoker who no longer had the urge to smoke after suffering a stroke. Bechara's findings shed light on the workings of the brain systems involved in decision-making and addiction.

One of the developmental neuroscientist pioneers, University of Pittsburgh's Beatriz Luna, focuses on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. She reported that incentives have a magnified effect on cognitive control in adolescents, compared with adults. Adolescents performing a particular cognitive control task seem to require incentives in order to succeed, she said, suggesting immaturities in their reward system.

Participants, including program officials from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, also debated core assumptions about reward sensitivity and self-control, and their implications for practice and policy.

"There is such tremendous synergy among fields," said Reyna. "Collaborating and thinking together is important for setting a research agenda that will shape the field and have big payoffs in terms of public health and well-being."

The event was the kickoff to multiple interdisciplinary initiatives on campus, including the acquisition of a new neuroimaging facility to be housed in the College of Human Ecology. The American Psychological Association plans to publish a book based on the papers presented at the conference.

The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research, and Institute for the Social Sciences, all at Cornell, co-sponsored the conference.

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

Related Links:
The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making
College of Human Ecology
Valerie Reyna
ISS Judgment, Decision Making and Social Behavior

By Karene Booker

Anna Zhu practices teaching an experimental curriculum

Nine undergraduate students from the College of Human Ecology serving as extension interns spent their summer engaged in everything from teaching teens how to make better decisions to playing games with toddlers in order to answer key child development questions. Four of the internships were led by faculty in the department of human development.

The interns worked with faculty and community collaborators, particularly Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) associations, on creative projects that embody the college’s research, education and outreach missions and benefit communities throughout New York State. “CCE internships provide excellent opportunities for undergraduate students to learn first-hand about the ways research, education, and outreach complement each other,” said Jennifer Tiffany, associate director for extension and outreach in the College of Human Ecology.

Distenfeld poster

Shelby Distenfeld's presentation poster

Human development major Shelby Distenfeld ’13, traveled to Tioga and Seneca counties to recruit rural and low-income children for a study about how factors such as income and parenting influence children’s concept of choice. The project, under the direction of Tamar Kushnir, assistant professor of human development, “was very rewarding because I was able to play a role in many aspects of research from administrative duties and participant recruitment to collecting data,” Distenfeld said. “The opportunity to work with the mothers and children and see first-hand the differences in development among the children was eye opening.”

“An important lesson I learned is how research is actually conducted and how to successfully run a research project,” said Hemavattie Ramtahal ‘13. As a human development major, she dedicated her summer to investigating the relationship between poverty, emotion, and cognitive development in young children with Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development. Ramtahal worked in Tompkins, Cortland, and Yates counties recruiting families for the study, conducted the experimental tasks or “baby games” with the children, trained other research assistants and analyzed data.

“My burning curiosity about risky decision making started in high school,” said Anna Zhu ’14.  She wondered why teens make bad choices that jeopardize their health, future, or lives, and how to help them. A Human Biology, Health & Society major, she tackled these questions as part of her internship with Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. Zhu taught the experimental risk reduction curriculum in CCE’s 4-H Career Exploration program, prepared data for analysis, and worked with local partners and extension staff in New York City and Broome counties to administer follow-up surveys. “From this experience,” she said “I’ve already gained valuable skills in teaching, statistical analysis, and social science research – tools I expect to use in my career in public health.”

Sarah Dephtereos ’13 spent her summer exploring how 4-H educators use research. A policy analysis and management major, she worked with Steve Hamilton, human development professor and associate director for youth development at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, to review the literature on research utilization and draft a guide to youth development websites for 4-H educators. Her review identified common problems practitioners experience with accessing research. “I saw these issues reflected in the youth development websites I assessed,” Dephtereos said.”

Other extension internships in the college included teaching new immigrants ways to maintain a healthy diet, creating gardens at low-income schools, developing a high tech fabric class for girls, piloting nutrition and parenting education program, and researching child custody decisions in low-income families.

Information for faculty about applying for the 2012 CCE internship program will be available in December.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the department of human development.

Related websites:
Jennifer Tiffany:
CCE Summer Internship Program

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, October 11, 2011



From emergency evacuation notices to how many vegetables to eat, people need good information to make good choices. Ineffective risk communication, such as the drug warning inserts in tiny type on paper folded over some 12 times, can cost lives, money and reputations.

A chapter on risk communication by 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, in a new book explains how people of different ages have different needs when it comes to understanding risk messages.

The chapter is part of the new book "Communicating Risks and Benefits: An Evidence-Based User's Guide," published by the Food and Drug Administration and freely available online. The book distills the science on health communications and provides recommendations for designing and evaluating messages. It features the work of experts at the forefront of research in medical decision-making and health communications.

"Messages that have an impact are those that are understood and remembered," said Reyna. "But cognitive processing and memory change dramatically from childhood to old age."

Effective risk communication is essential to the success of public health efforts, she said.

Research suggests that information processing and memory for details improve from childhood through young adulthood, but then gradually decline. However, the ability to remember the gist of information grows in childhood and remains strong throughout adulthood in the healthy brain. Remembering the gist of information is important because it lasts longer and is relied on to make most decisions, Reyna said. To instill the gist of a message, risk communication needs to be tailored by age.

Reyna's research suggests that children, for example, need information in simple short sentences, such as: "Eat fruits and vegetables." "Make half your plate fruits and vegetables." Such repetition will stamp these details into memory, but children will also need cues for meaning, such as "fruits and vegetables make you strong."

As children get older they will become increasingly able to connect the dots and extract the meaning of information, Reyna said. Older children, for example, will get the gist that apples, spinach, carrots and fish are healthy food, and fries, tacos, cola and cheeseburgers are generally not. Since children influence family food buying and make food choices at school, how they process risk messaging is important, Reyna said.

Adolescents make choices about diet and exercise, sex, driving, drinking and drugs to name a few. This is also a time when many attitudes and habits about risks and benefits take root, Reyna said.

Older adults on the other hand, face risk-benefit decisions about medications, surgical procedures and financial planning.

They need communications presented more slowly and need more memory aids due to slowing processing speed and challenges with remembering details. Written instructions, as well as alerts and reminders delivered electronically (e.g., to take medication or to signal that medication has already been taken) are likely to be helpful.

Unlike children however, older adults can rely on fairly high levels of gist knowledge. It is also essential to explain the reasons for health recommendations to them since extraction of gist is the main mechanism through which older adults remember information, Reyna said.

"To influence attitudes, values and preferences, and in turn, change behavior, the design of risk communications must take advantage of what we know about how the brain works and develops across the life span," said Reyna. "But that is just step one. We also need to use scientific methods to evaluate the effectiveness of such messages."

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

Related Links:
College of Human Ecology
Valerie Reyna
Communicating Risks and Benefits - an evidence-based user's guide (PDF)

By Anna Zhu

My burning curiosity about risky decision making started in high school.  I witnessed some of my brightest friends make bad choices, slack off in school, and lose their way. I wondered, why do teens make these decisions that jeopardize their health, future, or lives, and how can we help them? I’m tackling these questions as part of an internship with Dr. Valerie Reyna, professor in the department of human development, College of Human Ecology.

One month into the internship, I taught a workshop on Reducing the Risk in Adolescence at the 4-H Career Explorations Conference, along with other members of Dr. Reyna’s lab. We gave the students a tour of our lab, offered advice on how to get involved in research and in college, and discussed the critical thinking and commitment involved in planning and carrying out a good research study.

The students in our workshop got to see social science research in action. We randomly assigned each student to one of two curricula being studied in Reyna’s lab – EatFit, a program promoting healthy eating and fitness or the Gist-Enhanced Reducing the Risk (RTRgist), a sexual health program based on Reyna’s research on adolescent memory and decision making. According to this research, when teens focus on details and statistics – a common feature of traditional health classes – they are more likely to make risky choices compared to when they focus on the overall meaning or “gist” of a situation.

As one of the EatFit teachers, I found the 4-H students incredibly enthusiastic about the hands-on activities. For example, students were shocked when we demonstrated exactly how many tablespoons of sugar are in a bottle of soda. The material we taught in both the RTRgist and Eatfit classes seemed to make a strong impression, but without further research, the results would be purely anecdotal. To test the effectiveness of the classes, the research team will conduct follow-up surveys with the students over the next 12 months and analyze results to identify changes in risky behaviors.

It’s exciting to look at the data analyses and realize that the work we do with teens can positively affect their behavior and lifestyle! I hope that one day health classes around the nation will benefit from the lessons we’re learning about how teens make decisions.

From this experience, I’ve already gained valuable skills in teaching, statistical analysis, and social science research – tools I expect to use in my career in public health. I’m excited to continue working with Dr. Reyna to increase my knowledge of risky decision making in adolescents.

Anna Zhu, ‘14, is a Human Biology, Health & Society major in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. This summer she is participating in an extension internship with Dr. Valerie Reyna sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension.