Uncertain About Uncertainty: How Qualitative Expressions of Forecaster Confidence Impact Decision-Making With Uncertainty Visualizations

Lace M.K. Padilla*, Maia Powell, Matthew Kay, Jessica Hullman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


When forecasting events, multiple types of uncertainty are often inherently present in the modeling process. Various uncertainty typologies exist, and each type of uncertainty has different implications a scientist might want to convey. In this work, we focus on one type of distinction between direct quantitative uncertainty and indirect qualitative uncertainty. Direct quantitative uncertainty describes uncertainty about facts, numbers, and hypotheses that can be communicated in absolute quantitative forms such as probability distributions or confidence intervals. Indirect qualitative uncertainty describes the quality of knowledge concerning how effectively facts, numbers, or hypotheses represent reality, such as evidence confidence scales proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A large body of research demonstrates that both experts and novices have difficulty reasoning with quantitative uncertainty, and visualizations of uncertainty can help with such traditionally challenging concepts. However, the question of if, and how, people may reason with multiple types of uncertainty associated with a forecast remains largely unexplored. In this series of studies, we seek to understand if individuals can integrate indirect uncertainty about how “good” a model is (operationalized as a qualitative expression of forecaster confidence) with quantified uncertainty in a prediction (operationalized as a quantile dotplot visualization of a predicted distribution). Our first study results suggest that participants utilize both direct quantitative uncertainty and indirect qualitative uncertainty when conveyed as quantile dotplots and forecaster confidence. In manipulations where forecasters were less sure about their prediction, participants made more conservative judgments. In our second study, we varied the amount of quantified uncertainty (in the form of the SD of the visualized distributions) to examine how participants’ decisions changed under different combinations of quantified uncertainty (variance) and qualitative uncertainty (low, medium, and high forecaster confidence). The second study results suggest that participants updated their judgments in the direction predicted by both qualitative confidence information (e.g., becoming more conservative when the forecaster confidence is low) and quantitative uncertainty (e.g., becoming more conservative when the variance is increased). Based on the findings from both experiments, we recommend that forecasters present qualitative expressions of model confidence whenever possible alongside quantified uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number579267
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Jan 22 2021


  • aleatory
  • cognition
  • decision-making
  • direct uncertainty
  • indirect uncertainty
  • quantile dotplots
  • uncertainty
  • visualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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