When Vague is Good

by Cees Quirijns on 11 August, 2011

There’s no doubt that we live in an age that quests for precise information.  Precision can however be dangerous as it keeps us from imagining new possibilities. Vagueness on the other hand is a reminder that we don’t know the answer yet, as is nicely pointed out Jonah Lehrer.

Moreover, researchers from Stanford University have now highlighted another important point regarding vagueness: contrary to popular wisdom it can actually help improve performance!

Here is how it works. Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds. After following a strict diet you decide to weigh yourself: you’ve lost 4 pounds. That is progress towards the goal, but you’re not quite there, which feels disappointing. Result: you might become a little less motivated. In the Stanford experiment the opposite happens when people are provided with vague information:

“Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner”

Too much precision in measuring progress can therefore have the unwanted effect of diminishing motivation to reach goals.

Further contributing to the case for vagueness is research from the Eastern Kentucky University: problem-solving ability is increased when relying on vague verbs to describe the problem. Domain-specific verbs namely inhibit analogical reasoning, making it less likely to discover useful parallels. Sometimes simply rewriting the problem in vague terms led to impressive improvements in the performance of subjects to come up with a solution.

So the next time you want to come up with a better solution to a problem or want to reach goals that are still far away, consider throwing some vagueness in the mix in order to improve performance.

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