Tag Archives: gist

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.

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Valerie Reyna, Professor in Human Development

Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, and Evan Wilhelms,

Evan Wilhelms, Ph.D., Cornell Graduate School, '15

Evan Wilhelms, Ph.D., Cornell Graduate School, '15

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.”

HD-Today e-Newsletter, Summer 2016 Issue

By Allison M. Hermann, Ph.D.

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

The Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM), led by Dr. Valerie Reyna in Human Development, welcomed 24 high school students from 18 different counties throughout New York State as part of a 3-day course in decision making research called, “Getting the Gist.” The high school students journeyed to Cornell University as part of the 4-H Career Explorations Conference that offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend courses and workshops and learn about STEM research.

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James Jones-Rounds, Lab Manager of the HEP Lab

The high school students became guest LRDM lab members and learned how to turn their questions about risky decision making into experiments. They created an experiment, collected and analyzed the data, and discussed the results. The student career explorers also toured the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility and the EEG and Psychophysics Laboratory and saw how decision research uses brain imaging technologies to examine what brain areas are activated when making risky decisions.

Dr. Reyna’s graduate students' David Garavito, Alisha Meschkow and Rebecca Helm, and research staff member, Bertrand Reyna-Brainerd, presented lectures on Dr. Reyna’s fuzzy trace theory and research design and led interactive discussions with the visiting students about the paths that led the graduate students to the LRDM at Cornell. In addition, three undergraduate members of the lab, Tristan Ponzo (’18), Elana Molotsky (’17) and Joe DeTello (’19) delivered poster presentations of current lab research projects. Feedback from one of the career explorers expressed the gist of the program, “Yes, I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of why I make the decisions I do.”

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.

Valerie Reyna

Valerie Reyna

“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.

VHans Chronicle

Valerie Hans

“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.

cancerBy H. Roger Segelken
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, March 25, 2015

The doctor says: “We offer two kinds of surgery for your cancer. Both procedures have 80 percent cure rates. After the first kind, 4 percent of patients have serious complications. In the second type, 20 percent simply die. No pressure to decide, but the sooner we start …”

Wishing you hadn’t slept through statistics class – trying to remember what went wrong with Uncle Joe’s surgery, and longing for the days when doctors knew best – you seek counsel in a decision-support tool, online or at the nearest cancer resource center.

“In fact, there are more than 40 tools to help people make informed decisions in cancer prevention, screening and treatment,” says Valerie F. Reyna, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. “The more effective decision-support aids help with the numeracy problem – is a 10 percent chance riskier than one in a thousand? But not all tools help patients use their values, emotions and life experience to make decisions that affect their lives and their families’ future.”

Writing in the February-March 2015 special issue of American Psychologist, in an article titled “Decision Making and Cancer,” Reyna and her research colleagues want support tools to accommodate what they call “bottom-line gist options” that swirl though a patient’s mind – along with “verbatim” details about probable risk and whatever else the doctor said.

Gist is at the core of Fuzzy Trace Theory (which Reyna applied most recently to patients’ decisions to take antibiotics even though the misery is probably caused by viruses, not bacteria), and there’s nothing wrong with listening to one’s heart, Reyna says.

Reyna and her co-authors explain that “gist involves understanding meaning (insight in the gestalt sense) – integrating dimensions of information to distill its essence, not just processing fewer dimensions of information that are ‘good enough.’” Although people incorporate both verbatim details and gist in decision making, “they generally have a fuzzy processing (gist) preference” for information, the authors report.

The researchers offer this prescription for a Fuzzy Trace Theory-based cancer-decision tool: Ensure that patients understand the essential gist meaning of information; remind patients of an array of simple social and moral values that are important to them and that have relevance to the decision at hand; and assist patients in applying their values throughout the decision process.

“Every phase of the cancer continuum – from prevention, screening and diagnosis to treatment, survivorship and end of life – is fraught with challenges to our abilities to make informed decisions,” says Reyna. “People are not optimal decision makers. We struggle with complex information about benefits and risks, tradeoffs and uncertainties in cancer treatment.”

An impassionate computer could make optimal decisions on our behalf – disregarding the gist of what we think is best for us, Reyna adds. But the computer is too literal to make the best decisions for people, Reyna says: “Decision support should strive to capture the gist, the essential bottom line, of patients’ options.”

Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute in the College of Human Ecology, is the first author on the paper along with Wendy L. Nelson, National Cancer Institute; Paul K. Han, Maine Medical Center, Scarborough, Maine; and Michael P. Pignone, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Preparation of the American Psychologist report was supported, in part, by awards from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research.