Is guilt ‘likely’ or ‘not certain’?: Contrast with previous probabilities determines choice of verbal terms


This research focuses on what determines speakers’ choice of positive and negative probability phrases (e.g., “a chance” vs. “not certain”) in a legal context. We argue that choice of phrase to describe an event’s probability of occurrence can be determined by the contrast between its current p value and an earlier p value, and not by that current value alone. Three experiments were conducted describing scenarios where profilers communicated a suspect’s probability of guilt to the police. In the first study, a probability estimate is revised upwards or downwards. In the second one, the probability estimate of a speaker is higher or lower than that given by a previous speaker. In both cases, participants expected upward trends to lead to positive phrases, whereas downward trends were associated with negative phrases. In a third study, participants had to select probability phrases to characterize two different suspects. No contrast effects were found. We conclude that verbal probability directionality has primarily an argumentative function, where positive phrases are selected when probabilities are contrasted with smaller p values, and negative when contrasted with higher p values.

In Acta Psychologica, 135, 267-277