Now We Know: How People Make Decisions

By Suzette Norris

The former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop once remarked, “drugs don’t work in patients who don’t take them.”

The failure of patients in the United States to take prescription medicines accounts for about 125,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also increases the likelihood of disease progression, hospitalizations and emergency room visits. The result: Healthcare costs escalate by an estimated $100 billion to $289 billion each year.

Scientists at a PARC laboratory in Webster, N.Y., are conducting research  that approaches the medication adherence issue as a decision-making problem, rather than a memory problem. To do this, they are exploring insights derived from various theories in human development, and combining them with Xerox’s deep expertise in personalization.

The team works with Valerie Reyna, a professor of human development and psychology and director of the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making at Cornell. Professor Reyna developed a theory about how people store and use information called fuzzy trace theory. This theory recognizes that people store information in two ways:

  • Verbatims, detailed representations of events
  • Gists, a more “pragmatic, bottom line” interpretation of information.

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Professor Reyna says insights from fuzzy trace theory help people make better decisions about genetic testing, sexual health, and a variety of other areas that call on people to make risky decisions. Reyna believes that helping the medical community share information in a way that leads to gist-based decision making could improve medical decisions by both physicians and patients. She was recently discussed “risk communication” in a PBS NewsHour in interview about Ebola.

Working closely with Xerox health information solutions business, researchers plan to develop tools that will help address the challenge of medication adherence for patients and their healthcare providers.

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  1. Suzy Short March 11, 2015 - Reply

    I’m definitely intrigued by the concept of ‘fuzzy trace theory’ and the merits of storing information in ‘gists’. As someone who rarely remembers the exact details but always remembers the ‘bottom line’, I’m eager to understand how my decisions can benefit from a trait I had previosuly viewed as an opportunity. Thank you for this “AHA’ moment!

  2. keith Kelsen March 11, 2015 - Reply

    I’m interested to understand how gists and verbatims are affected by visual, audio and smell? And is one more powerful than the other and which does each of these affect. Thanks.

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