Brain power

Being vague won’t help you to influence others

Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.

Vagueness is often a characteristic of public life, but research1 from James Cook University shows that it’s unlikely to help you win friends or influence people.

In a set of nine carefully planned experiments with people from Western and Asian backgrounds, researchers aimed to understand how people react to vague and direct answers to questions.

Hiding the truth

Ambiguous responses sometimes made folks think someone was hiding the truth, and other times made them seem uninterested, which, in turn, made the responder less likable.

Because of this, the study participants were less likely to want to be friends with or date people who seemed to prefer giving unclear answers.

“Oftentimes you’ll come across people who are not very social and don’t really want to engage with you, so they’ll brush you off with a perfunctory answer, which can often be ambiguous,” the researchers explain. “Conversely, if well-meaning people are unknowingly damaging their reputation by being non-committal, this research may help increase their awareness of these social blind spots.”

Caveat attached

Our reaction to ambiguous responses can often come with a caveat attached, however, as many of us have a pretty dogmatic approach whereby we demand the truth. Indeed, we can often fall into the trap of thinking the truth is the sole point of communication, despite life often throwing up clear conflicts of interest.

For instance, when the issue at hand was rather more sensitive, it was found that giving a vague answer helped to soften the blow more than giving a direct answer.

“One of the sensitive questions in this study related to a person asking a doctor what percentage chance they had of surviving following a relapse into illness and the doctor responded the person had a 50% chance of recovery, which would be quite horrifying to hear,” the researchers explain.

“But then in the ambiguous scenario, the doctor said “There’s reason to be optimistic,” which may be rather rosy response but it provides a kernel of hope over the blunt truth.”

Have their place

Of course, while more vague answers do certainly have their place, that place doesn’t tend to be in the kind of low-stakes scenarios we encounter every day. In these instances, clear and direct tends to win the day.

“It’s about being aware of the simultaneous goals we have in communication and prioritizing what’s the best approach,” the authors conclude.

“And it’s also about awareness of the concept of language ambiguity in general. This is because while people often provide an ambiguous answer on purpose, there are also classes of situations in which ambiguous responses are provided unintentionally, such as when the responder is tired, distracted, or genuinely unable to recall something with precision.”

Header image source: Created by Bruce Boyes with Perchance AI Photo Generator.


  1. Wang, D., & Ziano, I. (2023). Give Me a Straight Answer: Response Ambiguity Diminishes Likability. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 01461672231199161.
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Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organizing systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and enjoy exploring the edge of organizational behavior. I specialize in finding the many great things that are happening in the world, and helping organizations apply these changes to their own environments. I also blog for some of the biggest sites in the industry, including Forbes, Social Business News, Social Media Today and, whilst also covering the latest trends in the social business world on my own website. I have also delivered talks on the subject for the likes of the NUJ, the Guardian, Stevenage Bioscience and CMI, whilst also appearing on shows such as BBC Radio 5 Live and Calgary Today.

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