Fuzzy Risk Perception: Correlates of 'Fuzzy' and Specific Measures of Outcome Likelihood in Young Drinkers

Brown, Stephen Lloyd, Nowlan, Leanne, Taylor, Paul John orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9999-8397 and Morley, Andy M orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-1942-1983 (2013) Fuzzy Risk Perception: Correlates of 'Fuzzy' and Specific Measures of Outcome Likelihood in Young Drinkers. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 19 (2). pp. 120-129. ISSN 1076-898X

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0033284


Promoting informed choices about alcohol use requires understanding the nature of drinkers’ risk
perceptions and how these influence decision-making. Fuzzy trace theory states that people use imprecise
“fuzzy” risk representations, which are based on the broad cognitive and affective meanings of
risk-related experiences, whereas traditionally used measures request precise unitary estimations. Fuzzy
representations may be less affected by defensive self-enhancement biases inherent in unitary estimates
and better predictors of decision outcomes because they better reflect risk-related affect. Conversely,
unitary estimates are based in specific experience and should be better associated with objective risk.
Fuzziness was operationalized as a bounded range of undergraduate drinkers’ lowest and highest
“possibly true” estimates of likelihood for eight alcohol-related outcomes on an unmarked scale anchored
by the terms “no chance” and “certain.” This allowed comparison to unitary estimates and objective
alcohol-related risk (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test [AUDIT] scores). Consistent with
self-enhancement, unitary estimates were lower than bounded estimate midpoints. An accountability
manipulation, which reduces self-enhancement, increased unitary but not bounded estimates. These
effects were stronger in participants scoring highly on defensive coping. Bounded estimates were better
predicted by risk-related affect and they more strongly predicted intention to reduce drinking. Unitary
measures were better predicted by AUDIT scores. Accountability manipulations suppress heuristic
thought, reduced correlations between bounded estimates and affect and intention, and eliminated unitary
and bounded differences in prediction of AUDIT scores. Drinkers prefer fuzzy representations that reflect
affective information when making decisions, but improving risk-based decisions may involve combining
the best elements of bounded and unitary representations.

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