How Embracing Vagueness Can Help You Achieve Your Goals
By Jonah Lehrer of Wired Magazine
Vagueness is hard to defend. To be vague is to be imprecise, unclear, ambiguous. In an age that worships precise information, vagueness feels like willfull laziness.
And yet, as William James pointed out, vagueness is not without virtues. Sometimes, precision is dangerous, a closed door keeping us from imagining new possibilities. Vagueness is that door flung wide open, a reminder that we don’t yet know the answer, that we might still get better, that we have yet to fail.
James would be delighted by a new study, led by Himanshu Mishra at the University of Utah and Baba Shiv at Stanford, which outlines the cognitive benefits of the vague and inarticulate. The scientists begin by describing all the new consumer devices and gadgets providing us with highly precise feedback:
For instance, technologically advanced bathroom scales can now give measurements of weight, body fat, and hydration levels within two and even three decimal places. People can find out exactly how many calories they are eating, how much weight they can lift, and how many steps they walk in a typical day. The overarching belief exemplified by the use of such technologies could be summed up by the phrase, “If I can measure it, I can manage it.” In other words, people seem to believe that precise information increases their likelihood of performing better and meeting personal goals (e.g., improving physical strength or losing weight).
The problem with precision, though, is that it can often be discouraging. Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds. After following a strict diet for a few days, you then decide to weigh yourself. The good news is that you have lost weight. The bad news is that you’ve only lost 4 pounds. While that represents progress, it probably feels pretty disappointing, since you’ve already worked hard and you’re not even half way to the goal. As a result, you might become a little less motivated, which means that you start to cheat on your diet. Before long, those pounds are back – you’ve been undermined by the precise feedback. The larger point is that the exactitude of the scale made it impossible to ignore the lack of success, which makes us more likely to surrender. And this is where vagueness comes in: when information is ambiguous we typically settle on more generous interpretations – Perhaps we’ve lost eight pounds! Perhaps we’re just retaining water! – which means that we stay motivated. In this sense, vagueness is a useful delusion, a nifty means of remaining committed to long-term goals. Reality is a deterrence.
To demonstrate the benefits of vagueness, the scientists invented a fake measure of health called the Holistic Health Index, or HHI, which purported to measure “the healthfulness of a given lifestyle.” Each week, thirty nine subjects were given information about how they scored on the HHI, based on measurements of their weight and hydration levels.
Some subjects were given a precise readout of their HHI, which they could compare to the ideal HHI. Others were given an HHI range that varied by 3 percent in either direction – it was a deliberately vague form of feedback. What the researchers found was that the less precise feedback led to far more weight loss, especially for those already overweight. For instance, while those with an initial HHI of 75 gained, on average, one pound over the course of the experiment after being given precise feedback, those given vague feedback lost nearly four pounds. That’s because the vagueness provided an illusion of proximity to the ideal, thus making the goal seem more achievable. The fuzziness of the facts kept them motivated. The same logic, of course, should apply to any long-term goal (saving for retirement, studying for a difficult test, etc.) that provides us with plenty of feedback along the way. Here are the scientists:
Is the eternal quest for precise information always worthwhile? 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.
The practical takeaway is that the weight scales of the future should focus on giving us vague feedback. Forget those decimal points – we need error bars and imprecise estimates. Nothing keeps us motivated like not knowing better.
Bonus benefit of vagueness: According to an experiment led by Catherine Clement at Eastern Kentucky University, one way to consistently increase our problem-solving ability is to rely on vague verbs when describing the problem. That’s because domain-specific verbs – actions which we only perform in particular contexts – inhibit analogical reasoning, making us less likely to discover useful comparisons. However, when the same problem is recast with more generic verbs – when we describe someone as “moving” instead of “sprinting,” for instance – people are suddenly more likely to uncover unexpected parallels. In some instances, Clement found that the simple act of rewriting the problem led to impressive improvements in the performance of her subjects.