Arithmetic computation with probability words and numbers

Mandel, David R. ORCID logoORCID:, Dhami, Mandeep K. ORCID logoORCID:, Tran, Serena and Irwin, Daniel (2021) Arithmetic computation with probability words and numbers. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 34 (4) . pp. 593-608. ISSN 0894-3257 [Article] (doi:10.1002/bdm.2232)

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Probability information is regularly communicated to experts who must fuse multiple estimates to support decision-making. Such information is often communicated verbally (e.g., “likely”) rather than with precise numeric (point) values (e.g., “.75”), yet people are not taught to perform arithmetic on verbal probabilities. We hypothesized that the accuracy and logical coherence of averaging and multiplying probabilities will be poorer when individuals receive probability information in verbal rather than numerical point format. In four experiments (N = 213, 201, 26, and 343, respectively), we manipulated probability communication format between-subjects. Participants averaged and multiplied sets of four probabilities. Across experiments, arithmetic accuracy and coherence was significantly better with point than with verbal probabilities. These findings generalized between expert (intelligence analysts) and non-expert samples and when controlling for calculator use. Experiment 4 revealed an important qualification: whereas accuracy and coherence were better among participants presented with point probabilities than with verbal probabilities, imprecise numeric probability ranges (e.g., “.70 to .80”) afforded no computational advantage over verbal probabilities. Experiment 4 also revealed that the advantage of the point over the verbal format is partially mediated by strategy use. Participants presented with point estimates are more likely to use mental computation than guesswork, and mental computation was found to be associated with better accuracy. Our findings suggest that where computation is important, probability information should be communicated to end users with precise numeric probabilities.

Item Type: Article
Research Areas: A. > School of Science and Technology > Psychology
Item ID: 32143
Notes on copyright: This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Mandel, D. R., Dhami, M. K., Tran, S., & Irwin, D. (2021). Arithmetic computation with probability words and numbers. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 34( 4), 593– 608, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions. This article may not be enhanced, enriched or otherwise transformed into a derivative work, without express permission from Wiley or by statutory rights under applicable legislation. Copyright notices must not be removed, obscured or modified. The article must be linked to Wiley’s version of record on Wiley Online Library and any embedding, framing or otherwise making available the article or pages thereof by third parties from platforms, services and websites other than Wiley Online Library must be prohibited.
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Depositing User: Mandeep Dhami
Date Deposited: 22 Feb 2021 08:54
Last Modified: 22 Jan 2023 04:04

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