Decision-Making

Avoiding Weasel Words

A weasel, nicknames Willie, figured prominentl...

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I’ve recently been reading a lot of weasel words.  Those words which mean one thing, but which imply something else.  The other day I was reading an article in a highly respected academic journal that I will not name in this post, for reasons which will become clear shortly.

The article was about using academic research as evidence to develop talent retention strategies. At one point the article states that research has shown that “reducing turnover rates is linked to sales growth and improved employee morale.”  So far, so good.

The word “linked” is one of those weasel words.  It means that one thing is associated with another. In statistical terms it means that one thing is correlated to another. However, we often assume that the word linked means that one thing caused the other. 

In our example, people might infer that reduced turnover rates cause sales growth and improved employee morale.  However, that is not the case.  All we know is that reduced employee turnover, sales growth and improved employee morale happen together.  In fact, it might be that sales growth reduces turnover, because people are making big bonuses and are happy to stay at the organization.  When sales are bad, the company is in trouble and people might be tempted to leave for greener pastures. 

If you assume a causal relationship, that is that reducing turnover increases sales growth, you might be tempted to put a lot of money, time and attention into reducing turnover rates, making a potentially costly and ineffective move.

How can you avoid this? Look for evidence but watch for weasel words.  Don’t assume causality when it isn’t there.

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2 replies »

  1. Avoiding would mean that perhaps these “weasel” words are unintentional. A dear friend and I had a short discussion on what I can now term “weasel phrases”, thank you for inventing “weasel”, and whether or not they’re intentional.
    In the example above, what would the author have to gain, or his/her employer, if people were to infer what essentially would be a lie? In this case, perhaps nothing and the use of the weasel word is unintentional.
    It is my position that weasel words and weasel phrases are used intentionally, in advertising, marketing, sales and research, to publish just enough truth and in a way that people do infer a lie and actually perpetuate it for the author.
    Cynical at best isn’t it. Well, David Hannum said it, “There’s a sucker born every minute!” so why not capitalize on that market. (PT Barnum just got stuck with the saying.)

  2. You have a point. Perhaps we should call my words “weak words”, as they are not intentionally manipulative or misleading, but nonetheless, may mislead us.

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