Fuzzy-Trace Theory

Fuzzy-Trace Theory (FTT) (Brainerd & Reyna, 1990) was an attempt to unify findings in the areas of memory and reasoning that could not be predicted or explained by previous approaches to cognition and its development. It has evolved over time in response to the data collected and the researchers who have been interested in it. The theory has been used in fields such as cognitive psychology, human development, and social psychology to explain, for example, false memory and its development, probability judgments, medical decision-making, risk perception and estimation, bias and error in decision-making. FTT suggests that when it comes to memory, humans have two different types of mental representation: verbatim (precise details) and gist (general idea). Thus, Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT), based on a dual process (Brainerd & Reyna, 2013), is a theory of cognition that relies on dual trace designs to predict and explain cognitive phenomena, particularly in memory and reasoning.

There are five principles of FTT (Reyna & Brainerd, 1995).

  • The first principle asserts that there is parallel storage of verbatim in the just representation. This means that when you process information about an experience, you process both the surface forum as verbatim traces and the content of the experience as dissociated gist traces. The gist traces can be stored at different levels of specificity.
  • The second principle concerns the reprocessing of verbatim and gist traces. This principle is important because the exact combination of verbatim and gist retrieval determines the magnitude of the false memory.
  • The third principle is based on the dual opposition process taken together, verbatim and gist memories can increase the formation of accurate memories when their content matches, if you both have gist and verbatim memories of an event, each process can inform and support the other. Gist retrieval supports false memories because the meaning of items may seem familiar to a person, leading to the generalization of a specific memory.
  • The fourth principle of fuzzy trace theory is the idea of developmental variability, as described earlier, memory just under beta has different developmental trajectories during childhood and early adulthood. List memory specifically improves over the course of development because the ability to process the meaning of individual items and the ability to connect meaning across different items improves with the child's age.
  • The fifth and final principle refers to the idea that verbatim representation creates more vivid memories, while accurate representation creates more vague memories. Specifically, retrieving verbatim traces promotes a form of vivid memory called recollection. During this process, people remember the specific details of an experience, whereas just memory supports a more generic form of memory called familiarity.

One of the central ideas of the Fuzzy-Trace theory (Brainerd & Reyna, 1990) is that the human brain generally relies on the essence of the information, its meaning, and its fundamental significance. This essence is, therefore, necessarily in opposition to the form of the information itself, in other words, to the details that arise during judgment or decision-making.

The theory suggests that simple, fuzzy, but still meaningful representations of information often determine the decisions that will follow in the next moment. For example, in a study on brain function, illustrations for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer control, etc., were given to different patients to demonstrate that specific information, such as the idea of risk, is not always effective or relevant in encouraging preventive behaviors or even leading to a medical decision. The idea here, according to this study, is that the human brain, and people in general, can understand the facts that encompass this information without actually making sense of it, which is the basis for appropriate decision-making.

False memories are generally considered "stupid" (Reyna & Brainerd, 1998) because they are often created from deficient elements, such as events that never really happened. But, as we have seen, they are usually derived from memories of events that essentially did happen. Memories seem to work their way out of the unconscious of the human brain to become consciously experienced as if they were real. In this sense, more or less recent psychological research has shown that elaboration and inferences can create false intelligent memories. It is from this that the FTT (La Tour et al., 2014) seeks to understand and prove that they derive their origins from the experience itself. So the FTT seeks to predict that false memories considered intelligent should be positively related to measures of levels of need for cognition (NFC). According to researchers, some experiments show that people with higher NFC are more likely to produce, create and infer information from advertising that leads them to create false intelligent memories.

Chang (2018) tries to discover the paradox of an athlete's negative publicity based on FTT and its theories of negativity. He tested the effect of a repetition of affirmation on negative publicity, and to notice with a delay in consumer evaluation, a decrease in these negative effects. He thus seeks to prove that a division of attention and cognitive resources weakens detailed contextual memory over time. By leaving a more general memory, he finds that consumers' judgment of athletes in general has become more positive.

FTT attempts to explain that adults tend to have a higher rate of false memories (Reyna & Brainerd, 1994). This counterintuitive idea is called "developmental reversal" which is used by scientists to define a phenomenon where an ability becomes weaker with age. Brainerd and Reyna (1994) have attempted to demonstrate that adults simply use their memory, during child development, verbatim memory of thought develops more rapidly than simple memory, making it more accessible and useful to children than simple memory. Therefore, children unlike adults, prefer verbatim representation (Reyna & Ellis, 1994). In the American legal system (Brainerd & Reyna, 2005; Ceci & Friedman, 2000) jury verdicts are often significantly influenced by the testimony of both adults and children. In the past, if an adult and a child presented conflicting testimony, juries were instructed to consider the adults as inherently more truthful. Now that we know this is not the case, it is important that judges begin to instruct jurors on the counterintuitive reliability of children's recollections. However, the researchers suggest several caveats that are important to keep in mind when we accept TTF as a rationale for the reliability of children's testimony.


Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (1990). Gist is the grist: Fuzzy-trace theory and the new intuitionism. Developmental Review, 10(1), 3-47.

Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2005). The science of false memory. Oxford University Press.

Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2013). Dual processes in memory development: Fuzzy‐trace theory. The Wiley handbook on the development of children's memory, 1, 480-512.

Ceci, S. J., & Friedman, R. D. (2000). The suggestibility of children: Scientific research and legal implications. Cornell L. Rev., 86, 33.

Chang, Y. (2018). When infamy becomes fame: The positive side of negative athlete publicity. Journal of Sport Management, 32(4), 401-411.

LaTour, K. A., LaTour, M. S., & Brainerd, C. (2014). Fuzzy trace theory and “smart” false memories: Implications for advertising. Journal of Advertising, 43(1), 3-17.

Reyna, V. F., & Brainerd, C. J. (1994). The origins of probability judgment: A review of data and theories. In G. Wright & P. Ayton (Eds.), Subjective probability (pp. 239–272). John Wiley & Sons.

Reyna, V. F., & Brainerd, C. J. (1995). Fuzzy-trace theory: An interim synthesis. Learning and individual Differences, 7(1), 1-75.

Reyna, V. F., & Brainerd, C. J. (1998). Fuzzy-trace theory and false memory: New frontiers. Journal of experimental child psychology, 71(2), 194-209.

Reyna, V. F., & Ellis, S. C. (1994). Fuzzy-trace theory and framing effects in children's risky decision making. Psychological Science, 5(5), 275-279.