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Sunday, January 15, 2023

How Hedges Impact Persuasion

Oba, Demi and Berger, Jonah A.
(July 23, 2022). 


Communicators often hedge. Salespeople say that a product is probably the best, recommendation engines suggest movies they think you’ll like, and consumers say restaurants might have good service. But how does hedging impact persuasion? We suggest that different types of hedges may have different effects. Six studies support our theorizing, demonstrating that (1) the probabilistic likelihood hedges suggest and (2) whether they take a personal (vs. general) perspective both play an important role in driving persuasion. Further, the studies demonstrate that both effects are driven by a common mechanism: perceived confidence. Using hedges associated with higher likelihood, or that involve personal perspective, increases persuasion because they suggest communicators are more confident about what they are saying. This work contributes to the burgeoning literature on language in marketing, showcases how subtle linguistic features impact perceived confidence, and has clear implications for anyone trying to be more persuasive.

General Discussion

Communicating uncertainty is an inescapable part of marketplace interactions. Customer service representatives suggest solutions that “they think”will work, marketers inform buyers about risks a product “may” have, and consumers recommend restaurants that have the best food“in their opinion”.  Such communications are critical in determining which solutions are implemented, which products are bought, and which restaurants are visited.

But while it is clear that hedging is both frequent and important, less is known about its impact.  Do hedges always hurt persuasion?  If not, which hedges more or less persuasive, and why?

Six studies explore these questions. First, they demonstrate that different types of hedges have different effects. Consistent with our theorizing, hedges associated with higher likelihood of occurrence (Studies 1, 2A, 3, and 4A) or that take a personal (rather than general) perspective (Studies 1, 2B, 3, and 4B) are more persuasive. Further, hedges don’t always reduce persuasion (Studies 2A and 2B). Testing these effects using dozens of different hedges, across multiple domains, and using multiple measure of persuasion (including consequential choice) speaks to their robustness and generalizability.

Second, the studies demonstrate a common process that underlies these effects.  When communicators use hedges associated with higher likelihood, or a personal (rather than general) perspective, it makes them seem more confident. This, in turn, increases persuasion (Study 1, 3, 4A and 4B). Demonstrating these effects through mediation (Studies 1, 3, 4A and 4B) and moderation (Studies 4A and 4B) underscores robustness.Further, while other factors may contribute, the studies conducted here indicate full mediation by perceived confidence, highlighting its importance.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals may want to consider this research as part of psychotherapy.