Fuzzy Trace Theory-Meaning, Memory, Development

gistimagesI discussed this theory briefly in the post Development Stages of Intuition and Analysis.  I am finally going to tackle it in a more detailed fashion. Valerie Reyna and her husband Charles Brainerd are the authors of fuzzy trace theory.  This theory is about twenty five years old, but has been ignored by the most renown psychologists so far as I can tell. The theory is supported by much empirical testing. Reyna and Brainerd moved together from the University of Arizona to Cornell and it seems that the theory has gained something of a foothold.  Reyna is a tireless researcher, speaker, and writer  and has also made something of a name for herself in the public press with false memory phenomena.  I find her ideas persuasive although not complete, and I find it frustrating that I have not found much discussion of her ideas among her colleagues. This is especially surprising since she was a student of Amos Tversky. Dan Kahneman has never mentioned it so far as I can tell.  If you know where to look, please let me know.  I am going to try to summarize the basic ideas in three separate posts based on her paper:  “A new intuitionism:  Meaning, memory, and development in Fuzzy Trace Theory” found in the May 2012 issue of Judgment and Decision Making.

The central ideal of fuzzy trace theory is that people encode, store, retrieve, and forget verbatim and gist memories separately and roughly in parallel. Verbatim memory is memory representations of exact words, numbers, and pictures.  It is a symbolic representation of the stimulus, not the stimulus itself.  Gist memory is memory for essential meaning, the substance of information irrespective of exact words, numbers, or pictures.  Gist is a symbolic representation of the stimulus that captures meaning.


Figure 1 from Reyna’s paper provides an overview of the verbatim-gist distinction.



Verbatim representations (memories) support precise processing. Processing is differentiated from memories in that it involves retrieving reasoning principles and applying those principles to memories. A small number of reasoning principles support a large number of reasoning and decision making tasks. Experiments have shown that five or six year old children show basic competence underlying many reasoning principles, even though performance improves up to adulthood.  Reyna provides the example of the ratio principle or alternatively odds. She reports that people adept at computation (high numeracy) may interject such ratios into decision making tasks even when the ratios produce wrong answers when they lack understanding of the gist of the task information.  This is an example of verbatim-based analysis: processing  exact information in  a rote fashion rather than in a meaningful fashion.

Reyna says that adults generally encode both verbatim and gist representations in parallel, but they revert to gist representations whenever the task permits.  Different task requirements are illustrated from left to right in Figure 1: When memory task require exact matches to presented information, verbatim representations are used to reject meaning consistent distractors (verbatim trumps gist). Since fuzzy gist is the default, these tasks go against the grain of normal thinking and often gist based thinking bleeds through these tasks.  Presented with: “A bird is in the cage” and “The cage is under the table,”  in a verbatim task “The bird is under the table is not an appropriate response.  However, people in such situations will erroneously report the “false” memory of “The bird is under the table.”  This is the sort of task presented to witnesses in a courtroom.

Continuing to the right in Figure 1, when a memory task requires recognizing the meaning of presented information, both verbatim and gist representations can work. People can recognize “The bird is in the cage” as being accurate either by remembering it verbatim or by recognizing that it is consistent with the gist.  Thus even recognition tasks involve both verbatim and gist memories, if task instructions do not rule out gist.  After a delay, such recognition responses are governed primarily by gist since the verbatim memory are usually forgotten. This is the sort of task presented by tests in the classroom.

In line with the fuzzy gist preference, most decision making tasks rely on gist as shown in the second row, in the third box to the right in Figure 1. Reyna notes that when the task requires non-literal comprehension, gist representations of meaning are used to reject literal responses based on verbatim memory.  She provides the example of “The man is wearing a loud tie” as having a verbatim interpretation as a tie making loud noises.  People with autism may rely more on verbatim representations and tend to not perform as well at task requiring such non-literal comprehension. This is the sort of task presented by creative endeavors.

Finally, the right most box in Figure 1 illustrates how information is processed when a task does not specifically require verbatim or gist memories. The verbatim and gist memories are encoded in parallel, but gist is preferred by most adults. Adults begin with the lowest (categorical) level of gist and only proceed to higher (more precise) levels if the lower levels do not give them the answer. Categorical gist would be no money is won or some money is won or some lives are saved versus no lives are saved. If such a categorical distinction does not discriminate options, ordinal gist is the next step, more money is won or more lives are saved. Gist reflects meaning and does not match one to one with verbatim quantities. Reyna suggests with gist meaning a non-zero amount can be considered nil, a 20% chance of rain is low, while a 20% chance of a heart attack is high.

When verbatim and gist representations favor different options, gist is most often used.  Reyna writes that people with high cognition needs may monitor such conflict by inhibiting incoherent responses. In fuzzy trace theory, intuition and impulsivity (lack of inhibition) are separate processes. This is evidenced by gist based intuition increasing with development from childhood to adulthood while impulsivity decreases. This development is based on experience and is similar to the development for adults from novice to expert in a domain of expertise.

When people lack understanding of information as when patients first receive a rare medical diagnosis, they must use verbatim representations.  Within the limits of their knowledge, Reyna says: “..people strive to extract the gist and base their decisions on the simplest gist that allows them to accomplish the task.”

Reyna, V(2012) A new Intuitionism: Meaning, memory, and development in Fuzzy-Trace Theory. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol 7, No. 3, May 2012, pp. 332-359.