The mind, meaning, and communicating risk

By: E.C. Barrett ,  College of Human Ecology
Wed, 04/22/2020

As the nation and the world continue the fight against COVID-19 and weigh policy choices going forward, research out of the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development offers insight into how the mind processes information, falls prey to misinformation, and makes decisions for or against risky behavior. It also provides some suggestions for science and public health experts to improve the way they communicate with the public.

Most theories of human cognition have offered a dualistic model. First, we developed intuition, a primitive process akin to association, then our brains evolved the capacity for rational deliberation. In the 1990’s, Dr. Valerie Reyna’s research in behavioral psychology revealed phenomena that could not be explained by parsing the mind solely into intuition and rationality, emotionally-perceiving and fact-processing. Traditional dualism overlooked a big part of human thinking that drives decision-making about risks.

How is it that we can know the facts and yet make decisions at odds with those facts? Why has misinformation about the science of vaccines or the use of antibiotics against viruses found such purchase at a time when factual information is only a few clicks away?

In a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Reyna offered evidence in support of her fuzzy-trace theory, which posits that most people process information unconsciously through gist-based intuition. While deliberation is certainly part of cognition, Reyna points to her own research and the research of others that proves we forget the facts of what was said fairly quickly, but retain the gist that we extract from those facts.

We interpret information as we are receiving it, pulling together what we know, our experiences, our biases and contextual clues to arrive at the gist of what we are being told. If the gist touches on a core value (such as: it is wrong to cause harm to others), we are more likely to act in accordance with the information.

Take social distancing orders, for example. “Some people will look at these rallies against social distancing and perceive resistance to a threat to their liberties. Others will look at them and think about how close together the protestors are and how they’re transmitting the disease. One of the things I’m trying to help people appreciate better is there are multiple interpretations, all of which go beyond the data. It’s not only a matter of motivated processing, though that’s part of it, it is that these processes are interpretative and connect to different values.”

Public health, policy, and science experts need to understand these cognitive processes to do their duty to the public, Reyna said. “For many issues, scientific information and misinformation are in a battle for the gist. A lot of political discourse is a battle for the gist: What does this issue boil down to? What is this about?”

For too long experts in these fields have been trained to provide lists of facts to the public, Reyna said, either as a way to maintain the appearance of objectivity or simply in keeping with the dual model of cognition: give people facts and they will deliberate and come to the rational conclusion.

By not presenting the gist of the information--what the facts mean--the door is open for misinformation to present a compelling, yet none-the-less inaccurate gist.

“Take people seriously when they say they don’t understand, and explain. There are some key facts that people have to understand, without having to be an expert. Not everyone is reasonable and open to discussion, but I think far more people are open than we give them credit for. If you focus on the gist—and the essential background information you have to get across to communicate the gist--then you can communicate with people in a way that connects to their values.”

Reyna MRI cover