Intensifiers and Believability

What is the effect of intensifiers  – words such as clearly, very, obviously – on making ideas more believable? The research is not conclusive, but it appears that the effect of intensifiers depends on the context in which they are used.

Some early empirical studies found that intensifiers do what they are supposed to do – intensify; their effect is usually mild. Other studies found that intensifiers are merely redundant.

Yet, the later research, especially the research into the so-called powerless language, found that intensifiers correlate with lower ratings of competence and intelligence. Here, however, the intensifiers were part of powerless language: hesitations (“um”, “ah”), hedges (“sort of” and “kind of”), polite forms (“please”, “thank you”) and similar.

One study analyzing lawyers’ appellate briefs found that the excessive use of intensifiers correlated with negative outcomes. The same study also found that in certain situations intensifiers are actually associated with favorable results. Yet, that study is of limited value because it only shows correlation: it doesn’t show that intensifiers are the cause of negative outcomes, only that they’re associated with negative outcomes (it might be that those lawyers who excessively used intensifiers had weaker cases to begin with).

So overall, although their effect is likely to be mild at best, intensifiers are safe to use by themselves. Yet, when combined with powerless language, intensifiers will likely decrease the effectiveness of your message even more than powerless language would by itself. Of course, if you do use them, it is best not to abuse them.

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