Fuzzy Thinking Gives Adolescents a Clearer View of Risk

Although many people make risky decisions, one group — adolescents — are the most likely to engage in risky behavior. According to one theory explaining the developmental trajectory of risky decision-making — the imbalance theory — this phenomenon is prevalent in adolescence partly because areas of the brain involved in reward mature before areas of the brain connected with behavioral inhibition and delay of gratification.

In a recent article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, APS Fellow Valerie F. Reyna, Rebecca B. Weldon, and Michael McCormick, all of Cornell University, describe how a second theory — fuzzy-trace theory (FTT) — may provide suggestions about altering adolescents’ tendency toward risky behavior.

Although FTT is used to explain a variety of different behaviors, in the realm of risky decision-making it focuses on how people’s brains represent risk and reward. This theory posits that people form two types of mental representations: one that is very literal and precise (i.e., verbatim representations), and one that is more cognitively simple (i.e., gist-based representations). As people age, they transition from relying more on verbatim mental representations when making decisions to relying more on ones that are gist-based. FTT suggests that advanced cognition, as is seen in adults, often rests on simple, all-or-non gist-based contrasts in risk taking rather than on more complex literal representations of degrees of risk.

According to FTT, people can be trained to alter their level of representation of risk. Adolescents, therefore, can be trained to rely on the simpler gist-based representations rather than on the more complex verbatim representations. Research has shown that when people focus on gist information when making choices, they are better able to apply their social and moral values to the decision at hand.

True to this theory, studies conducted with adolescents have shown that adolescents can be trained to rely on gist-based information and that this type of processing results in lower rates of risky decision-making. In one study, adolescents took part in a program providing information on the risk of pregnancy and STD transmission from unprotected sex. For one group of participants, the program was enhanced by the addition of simple, categorical summaries explaining the risks associated with unprotected sex (gist-based information). For example instead of only getting detailed information on the risks of pregnancy (e.g., “there is about a 1-in-12 chance of pregnancy from unprotected sex that results in a more than 90% chance of pregnancy after a year [if sex occurs once a month]”), the gist-enhanced program emphasized the simple message that pregnancy will most likely happen in a year if you have unprotected sex. Adolescents in the gist-enhanced program reported delayed initiation of sex, fewer sexual partners, and positive changes in perceived control and motivations to have sex compared with adolescents who had received the nonenhanced program.

By combining mechanisms involved in mental representations, motivation, and inhibition, FTT may provide a way to explain why adolescents make risky decisions and may offer a research-based path to improving their decision-making process.

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