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Want to be liked? Choose clarity over vagueness

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Tue, 26 Sep 2023
Want to be liked? Choose clarity over vagueness

Study reveals that vague responses can harm likeability in social situations, emphasising the importance of clear communication for interpersonal and career success.

In a recent study published on 22 September 2023 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that uncovers the interesting effects of vague responses in everyday conversations, researchers from James Cook University in Singapore and University of Geneva have examined the topic of likeability. Their research consists of 9 experiments conducted with participants from Western and Asian cultures, and explores how response ambiguity or vague answers influence how we view others.

Lead researcher Dr Deming (Adam) Wang, a social psychologist at James Cook University in Singapore, remarked, “When asked a question, people often give responses that are not as precise as the questioner had hoped for. Sometimes this vagueness is deliberate, but other times the responder could just be tired, distracted, or genuinely unable to recall the specific answer to a question. Our research reveals the impact of vague responses on likeability. It emphasises the importance of clear communication in daily life, because likeability pulls some serious weight in both our social and professional successes.”

The main revelation of this study is that people who tend to give vague answers to questions may find themselves perceived as less likeable in various social situations. This perception arises because vagueness in responses can be interpreted as a sign of disinterest or an attempt to hide the truth, depending on the specific social setting. As a result, people showed less interest in befriending or dating those who seemed to provide ambiguous answers.

However, the research also highlighted situations where response ambiguity did not make people less likeable. For instance, when broaching sensitive questions, and providing a straightforward answer could be harsh or hurtful, vague responses were deemed more acceptable.

Furthermore, the study explored how response ambiguity influenced perceptions of personality traits. People who gave vague answers were seen as less warm, less extroverted, less gullible, and more cautious. These nuanced findings deepen our understanding of how communication ambiguity is perceived and how it affects social interactions.

This study helps broaden our understanding of likeability in everyday interactions but also underscores the importance of clear communication in our daily conversations. It suggests that individuals should be mindful of using vague responses, to increase their likeability and promote positive social interactions.

Dr Wang added, "It's worth noting that our research does not dismiss the value of ambiguous language in all situations. There are times when a little ambiguity helps to keep relationships sailing smoothly, or dodge those awkward confrontations. However, in low-stakes everyday conversations, our findings reveal potential social downsides associated with being vague or unclear."


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

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Dr Adam Wang [email protected]

Media: Ms Pinky Sibal [email protected]