Spreading the Right Message: How Gist Can Flatten the COVID-19 Curve

Our project is investigating how to convert the gists of social media messages into effective risk-communication interventions about COVID-19. It is essential to study these messages now as risk perceptions are evolving as the pandemic progresses, which will have the greatest utility for early intervention in future public health threats. Providing the facts in messages is important, but it is how people interpret the gist of those facts that determine the spread of social media and protective behavior (Reyna, 2020). Our approach is motivated by Fuzzy Trace Theory which posits that subjects make decisions based on qualitative gist representations of stimuli that encode basic meaning in context. Although gists and more detailed verbatim representations are encoded in parallel, research indicates that people prefer to make decisions based on gist representations. Interventions based on Fuzzy Trace Theory have been widely used in domains pertaining to public health communications, ranging from sexual risk-taking (HIV-prevention e.g., Reyna et al., 2011; Reyna & Mills, 2014), to product labeling (Reyna & Adam, 2003), to antibiotic over-prescription (Broniatowski, Klein, & Reyna, 2015; Klein et al., 2017; Broniatowski et al., 2018). Overall, this project will assess the perceived risks and benefits of health behaviors related to COVID-19. We will also analyze gist from social media that can be used to generate meaningful public health communications. The project will directly inform existing attempts by public health communicators to express the risks, benefits, and actions that members of the population should take to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our measures will be validated against human users, enabling us to achieve both accuracy and scale. If successful, this project will serve as the basis for a larger effort that can increase the extent to which gist elicitation may be automated, helping public health communicators to quickly understand which gists should be communicated to which communities during outbreaks.

Roles and responsibilities 

The intern will work closely with Dr. Reyna’s research team as well as with CCE staff. Responsibilities will include, but are not limited to: outreach, recruiting study participants, data entry, and data analysis.

Qualifications and previous coursework

This opportunity is available to students in Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.

The preferred candidate will demonstrate a high level of enthusiasm for Dr. Reyna’s research in risk communication and risky decision making, as well as for applying this research in outreach and educational settings, including working with youth. The candidate will also have completed general coursework in at least one of the following: Human Development; Psychology; Human Biology, Health, and Society; Neurobiology; or related fields. The candidate should be in excellent academic standing.

Learning outcomes 

The intern will have the opportunity to gain skills in program development, translation and application of research to real-world problems, working with and through others, and translating research into outreach and educational materials, and youth development programming. They will also have the opportunity to gain knowledge of psychology and related behavioral sciences, public health, and issues in education.