Motivated reasoning and verbal vs. numerical probability assessment: Evidence from an accounting context
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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Volume (Year): 108 (2009)
Issue (Month): 2 (March)
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