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Motivated reasoning and verbal vs. numerical probability assessment: Evidence from an accounting context

Listed author(s):
  • Piercey, M. David
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    A perplexing yet persistent empirical finding is that individuals assess probabilities in words and in numbers nearly equivalently, and theorists have called for future research to search for factors that cause differences. This study uses an accounting context in which individuals are commonly motivated to reach preferred (rather than accurate) conclusions. Within this context, I predict new differences between verbal and numerical probability assessments, as follows: first, individuals will justify an optimistic verbal assessment (e.g., somewhat possible) by retaining the option of re-defining it, in case of negative outcomes, as though the phrase really means something different, and, for that matter, means more things. This re-definition will maintain some connection to the original meaning of the phrase, but de-emphasized relative to the new meaning. Second, based on this behavior, I also predict individuals' verbal probability assessments to be (1) more biased and yet (2) perceived as more justifiable than their numerical assessments. I find supportive evidence in an experiment designed to test the hypotheses. This study contributes to motivated reasoning and probability assessment theories (1) with new evidence of how individuals can word-smith in multiple attributes of a phrase to justify reaching a preferred conclusion, and (2) with new, reliable differences between verbal and numerical probability assessments. This study has important theoretical and practical implications relevant to organizational contexts in which people assess the likelihoods of uncertainties in words or numbers, and with motivations to reach a preferred conclusion.

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    Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

    Volume (Year): 108 (2009)
    Issue (Month): 2 (March)
    Pages: 330-341

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    Handle: RePEc:eee:jobhdp:v:108:y:2009:i:2:p:330-341
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    1. Hsee, Christopher K., 1996. "Elastic Justification: How Unjustifiable Factors Influence Judgments," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 66(1), pages 122-129, April.
    2. Womack, Kent L, 1996. " Do Brokerage Analysts' Recommendations Have Investment Value?," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 51(1), pages 137-167, March.
    3. Libby, Robert & Bloomfield, Robert & Nelson, Mark W., 2002. "Experimental research in financial accounting," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 27(8), pages 775-810, November.
    4. Schweitzer, Maurice E & Hsee, Christopher K, 2002. "Stretching the Truth: Elastic Justification and Motivated Communication of Uncertain Information," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 25(2), pages 185-201, September.
    5. Teigen, Karl Halvor & Brun, Wibecke, 1999. "The Directionality of Verbal Probability Expressions: Effects on Decisions, Predictions, and Probabilistic Reasoning, , , ," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 80(2), pages 155-190, November.
    6. repec:bla:joares:v:34:y:1996:i:1:p:125-140 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. Thomas S. Wallsten & David V. Budescu & Rami Zwick, 1993. "Comparing the Calibration and Coherence of Numerical and Verbal Probability Judgments," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 39(2), pages 176-190, February.
    8. Hamm, Robert M., 1991. "Selection of verbal probabilities: A solution for some problems of verbal probability expression," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 48(2), pages 193-223, April.
    9. Budescu, David V. & Wallsten, Thomas S., 1990. "Dyadic decisions with numerical and verbal probabilities," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 46(2), pages 240-263, August.
    10. Hershey, John C. & Baron, Jonathan, 1995. "Judgment by Outcomes: When Is It Warranted?," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 62(1), pages 127-126, April.
    11. Hershey, John C. & Baron, Jonathan, 1992. "Judgment by outcomes: When is it justified?," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 53(1), pages 89-93, October.
    12. Rich, J. S. & Solomon, I. & Trotman, K. T., 1997. "The audit review process: A characterization from the persuasion perspective," Accounting, Organizations and Society, Elsevier, vol. 22(5), pages 481-505, July.
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    15. Erev, Ido & Cohen, Brent L., 1990. "Verbal versus numerical probabilities: Efficiency, biases, and the preference paradox," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 45(1), pages 1-18, February.
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