Verbal and numeric probabilities differentially shape decisions

Thinking and Reasoning 30 (1):235-257 (2024)
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Experts often communicate probabilities verbally (e.g., unlikely) rather than numerically (e.g., 25% chance). Although criticism has focused on the vagueness of verbal probabilities, less attention has been given to the potential unintended, biasing effects of verbal probabilities in communicating probabilities to decision-makers. In four experiments (Ns = 201, 439, 435, 696), we showed that probability format (i.e., verbal vs. numeric) influenced participants’ inferences and decisions following a hypothetical financial expert’s forecast. We observed a format effect for low probability forecasts: verbal probabilities were interpreted more pessimistically than numeric equivalents. We attributed the difference to directionality, a linguistic property that biases attention toward an outcome. In the high-probability conditions, the directionality of verbal and numeric probabilities aligned (both were positive), whereas they differed in the low-probability conditions (verbal probabilities were more negative). Participants inferred recommendations congruent with the communicated direction and these inferences mediated the effect of probability format on decisions.



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