Fuzzy-Trace Theory- Experts and Future Direction


Experts are important in helping to make decisions about health and safety so their risk perception and decision processes are important to understand. Reyna gives as examples: the emergency room physician deciding about the risk of a patient for a heart attack, the meteorologist deciding about tornado risk, and a lawyer evaluating potential damage awards to decide to settle or go to trial.  Conventional wisdom is that experts apply precise analysis and numerical reasoning to achieve the best outcomes, while novices are more like to reason without analysis or numerical reasoning.

According to fuzzy-trace theory, experts differ developmentally from novices and thus should rely more on gist based intuition.  This view is not unlike Hogarth’s as presented in Educating Intuition. Reyna’s research has found that experts used less information and processed it less precisely than novices.  More expert physicians can better predict medical outcomes than less expert ones, but yet rely on simpler gist based representations to achieve this discrimination.  Again precise information processing was not associated with better judgment about patient risks.

Nevertheless, experts’ risk and probability judgments often violated internal coherence.  Reyna found that the expert physicians often had trouble adding up the probabilities of risk factors for a patient such as risk of heart attack or coronary artery disease. Yet the same physicians were quite capable of distinguishing low risk from high risk patients.

Reyna concludes that there are people who are logically coherent and those who have good outcomes, and these are not necessarily the same people.  Coherence errors are not necessarily related to correspondence errors. Errors of both coherence and correspondence decrease with greater reliance on gist-based intuition.  The brain does calculate numerical value and this valuation sometimes wins out, but the more developmentally advance brain relies mainly on the results of qualitative, meaning based processes despite verbatim valuation.

Overview and Future Direction

Reyna says that psycholinguistics has provided much research that shows the factors that influence gist extraction.  Fuzzy trace theory draws on that research as well as research on emotion and affect.  From these sources, Reyna explains that the mental representations that people extract are not arbitrary.  For numerical information,  a hierarchy of gist representations is encoded from nominal to ordinal to interval. Cues in the environment determine which gist representations that are retrieved from long-term memory.  People retrieve moral values such as “Saving some people is better than saving none” or “Thou shalt not kill” and social norms such as all else being equal everyone should receive the same, etc.  Together, these ideas can explain task variability–that context and framing shifts judgment and decision making in predictable ways– as well as task calibration–that precise response formats and task requirements can shift processing away from the gist processing default.

Reyna points out that fuzzy-trace theory is the only dual process theory that predicts development reversals–that bias based on fuzzy gist should increase with development. Inhibition is the third process and it increases with development and varies across individuals.  Inhibition helps to counteract the mental bookkeeping errors such as base rate neglect and conjunction and disjunction fallacies.

Of course, the development of risky decisions in childhood and adolescence have been a particular focus of the theory. with the surprising result that youth reason more rationally in the classic sense than adults do.  In other words, they are more coherent in some areas, but their correspondence–actually making the right decision- is not so good.

Fuzzy trace theory is consistent with research on neurobiological development, for instance, the massive pruning of gray matter that accompanies the years from childhood through young adulthood and the increased connectivity between prefrontal cortex and striatal region in the same period.  Reyna says that both neurobiology and fuzzy trace theory support the view that decision making becomes more streamlined and better integrated, rather than more detailed and elaborate as development progresses.


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  1. Pingback: Magnitudes - Judgment and Decision Making

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