Gist for Risk: Link between Impulsivity and Fuzzy-Trace Theory Explanations of Adolescent Risk Behavior
Adolescence is characterized by a steep increase in risk taking behaviors. Research indicates that individual differences in impulsivity are highly correlated with adolescent risk taking (Verdejo-Garcia, Lawrence, and Clark, 2008). Fuzzy-Trace Theory, a dual-process theory, proposes that differences in decision-relevant information processing predict decision outcomes (Reyna and Brainerd, 1995). Gist-based reasoning relies on qualitative information processing that emphasizes the abstract meaning of decision alternatives (e.g., avoid risk), whereas verbatim-based reasoning represents a form of quantitative, literal information processing (e.g., the specific risk of getting pregnant). Research suggests that gist processing is risk preventing, whereas verbatim processing is risk promoting (Mills, Reyna, and Estrada, 2008). The present study examines whether positively-valenced gist processing of decision-relevant information (e.g., approach risk) can account for the information processing of highly impulsive adolescents. Participants were 929 (28% male) late-adolescent students (mean age 19.7 years) recruited from undergraduate classes at Cornell University. They were administered an online survey with self-report measures of gist and verbatim processing associated with sex- and alcohol-related risk behavior, self-report measures of different facets of impulsivity, a delay discounting task, and a measure of real-world risk taking behavior. Results show that positive gist and impulsivity measures are positively associated with sex- and alcohol-related risk behavior. Mediation analyses suggest that positive gist is a significant mediator between impulsivity and risk behavior. The results indicate that positive gist is an important correlate of adolescent risk behavior and a significant mediator of the association between impulsivity and risk taking.
impulsivity; risk behavior; verbatim-based reasoning; Fuzzy-Trace Theory; gist-based reasoning
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