Giving Vague Answers Makes People Less Likeable

vague answers

According to a new James Cook University study, being vague may not be the best way to make friends and influence people. Dr. Deming (Adam) Wang, a social psychologist, and his team conducted nine experiments with Western and Asian participants to examine the reception of ambiguous and direct responses to queries.

Ambiguous responses were sometimes interpreted as a means of concealing the truth and as a sign of disinterest, making the respondent appear less likable. Consequently, participants also indicated a decreased tendency to befriend or date people who gave unclear answers.

“We largely focused on low stakes, everyday scenarios. Often times you’ll come across people who are not very social and don’t really want to engage with you, so they’ll brush you off with a perfunctory answer, which can often be ambiguous,”

Dr. Wang said.

Conflicts of Interest

If, on the other hand, well-meaning individuals are unintentionally harming their reputation through a lack of commitment, this study may serve to heighten their awareness of these social blind spots.

Dr. Wang stated, however, that responses to ambiguous responses came with a caveat.

“A lot of people have this really dogmatic approach in that they just want to know the truth, as if truth-seeking is the only purpose of communication. But in many scenarios in life, we’re often inundated with conflicts of interest,”

he said.

An ambiguous response is one that is vague or imprecise enough to allow for more than one interpretation. Other types of deceptive answerings, such as lies of omission or paltering, are deliberate wordings of answers that are intended to mislead people with specific false impressions.

Paltering is the active use of selective truthful statements to mislead. A lie of omission is a passive failure to correct a wrong statement.

Reason to be Optimistic

In sensitive questions, such as when delivering bad personal news, giving a vague answer was found to “soften the blow” and was preferred over being more direct, which was perceived as harsh or hurtful.

One of the sensitive questions in this study involved a person asking a doctor what percentage chance they had of surviving after a relapse into illness, and the doctor responding that the person had a 50% chance of recovery, which would be quite horrifying to hear.

“But then in the ambiguous scenario, the doctor said “There’s reason to be optimistic,” which may be rather rosy response but it provides a kernel of hope over the blunt truth,”

Wang said.

I Want a Straight Answer

While vague responses have their place in society, the study demonstrated that they are unnecessary in everyday, low-stakes scenarios.

In these contexts, people just want a clear response, a straight answer.

“It’s about being aware of the simultaneous goals we have in communication and prioritizing what’s the best approach. And it’s also about awareness of the concept of language ambiguity in general,”

said Wang.

This is due to the fact that, while people frequently provide an ambiguous answer on purpose, there are also situations in which ambiguous responses are provided unintentionally, such as when the responder is tired, distracted, or genuinely unable to recall something precisely.


Across nine experiments (eight preregistered) involving Western and Asian samples, we showed that people providing ambiguous (vs. specific) responses to questions in various social scenarios are seen as less likable. This is because, depending on the social context, response ambiguity may be interpreted as a way to conceal the truth and as a sign of social disinterest. Consequently, people reported lower inclination to befriend or date individuals who appeared to provide ambiguous responses. We also identified situations in which response ambiguity does not harm likability, such as when the questions are sensitive and the responder may need to “soften the blow.” A final exploratory study showed that response ambiguity also impacts personality perceptions—individuals providing ambiguous responses are judged as less warm, less extraverted, less gullible, and more cautious. We discuss theoretical implications for the language psychology and person perception literatures and practical implications for impression management and formation.

  1. Wang, D., & Ziano, I. (2023). Give Me a Straight Answer: Response Ambiguity Diminishes Likability. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, doi: 10.1177/01461672231199161

Last Updated on March 4, 2024