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As a behavioral scientist, I often write about biases in decision making, where people place too much / too little weight on a specific property of the options (relative to other factors or a certain benchmark; where that one comes from should be immaterial for the question).

However, I am chronically unsure what verb best describes this. My go-to is overweigh, as in

Subjects overweigh factor x.

or in passive voice,

Factor X is overweighed.

or

Behavior again is in line with overweighing of X.

The opposite would then be to underweigh.

However, my brain sometimes wants to insert a t, as in overweighting. Then, when I think about it, the t seems wrong, and only associated with being overweight. But my spell checkers actually complain about both forms. In consequence, I am never sure what is correct - and want to change that by asking here.

Thus: is overweigh the correct verb in this context? Should it be hyphenated as over-weigh, which is the only form most of my spell checkers seem to accept (I realize that is not gospel, but perhaps they are right)?

Or are there other verbs that fit well?


Edit: I think @fev is right and "to overweight" is the correct alternative. However, to understand where my uncertainty might have come from, I did some googling, and came to the conclusion that at least I am not the only one who finds this difficult... here's a few examples of the verb overweigh being used in that meaning:

  • "Don’t overweigh anecdotal evidence, Yang advises." Smithsonian Magazine
  • "Another reason why decision-making is hard, Milkman says, is the propensity to overweigh the instant gratification or the instant pain of a decision over the long-term consequences." Vox
  • "People overweigh small and underweigh large risks, " example of a scientific publication
  • And that's actually very common, especially in publications where the authors are (likely) non-native speakers like me: example google search with many hits

And once I started searching, I actually found many examples were both are used in the same text, e.g.

So, I am in good company, and also, it may be no surprise that I used to be confused which was the correct verb, since I probably kept coming across both in the literature.

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    I guess 'overvalue' or 'undervalue' might be appropriate, if the context makes it clear the valuation is relative? Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 15:28
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    'over-/undervalue' are certainly close and the main issue I'd have with them is the following. Ultimately, I'll want to say things like "subjects overvalued option A because they overweighted property X" when A has more X than the alternative option B... but they should have equal weight on property Y, in which B is far better.
    – DavidP
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:59
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    What are you placing too much or too little weight on when deciding that you need to find a substitute for the perfectly idiomatic phrase "place too much / too little weight on" , which you used in your question because you realized everyone would understand what you mean?
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 21:41
  • @Tim In scientific writing, I often prefer to have a succinct expression for central concepts, as they will be repeated quite often (see examples). Switching between synonyms is often not ideal because it introduces potential ambiguities. A particular advantage of having a single verb is that it easily allows phrasing like "we again observe overweighting" while using the same expression. In that sense, the question never was about finding a way to convey the intended meaning - which even the actually wrong (as I believe now) "to overweigh" always did, but one that checks these marks.
    – DavidP
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 7:36
  • @DavidP: When you abuse a word you are not being succinct.
    – TimR
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:05

7 Answers 7

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Overweigh is not correct, and if you check dictionaries you will soon discover why. It is defined as meaning

  1. to exceed in weight; overbalance
  2. to weigh down; oppress (Collins)

And you certainly don't mean that subjects oppress factor x.

Overweight however has the right meaning you are looking for:

  1. to give too much emphasis or consideration to
  2. to add too much weight to (Collins)

Just be aware that this verb is more commonly used in its literal meaning (sense 2 above) and less in its metaphorical meaning. See this NGram to confirm.

Overweighting1 would be the correct form that you can use. I found an example in The Smart Financial Advisor, (by Bill Martin, 2017) which uses overweighting in defining the term "anchoring":

Anchoring – Overweighting the importance of psychological benchmarks, rules-of-thumb, or baseline numbers when making decisions, resulting in reluctance to revise opinions amid new and contradicting information.

1 Note that its correct antonym is underweighTing.


But if you are worried about too great similarity with the noun overweight, then you can use

Overemphasize

to give excessive emphasis to (something)

  • overemphasize risks (M-W)

Another option, which is not a single word though, but can be handy, is to say: overstate the importance of, where importance can be replaced with other synonyms.

Overstate means

to state in too strong terms : EXAGGERATE

  • overstated his qualifications (M-W)
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    In control theory, computing, AI, etc, you apply numerical weights to different factors to specify their importance (then you multiply everything by its weight and add them up). The process of assigning weights is weighting, and overweighting would be assigning too large a weight. So it has a mathematical derivation in this meaning.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 8:33
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    'Just be aware that this verb is more commonly used in its literal meaning (sense 2 above) and less in its metaphorical meaning.' One wonders why august sources like Collins don't list the more common senses first; non-historical dictionaries are supposed to. How self-referential. // CD and OALD don't list the verb, while M-W (theoretically a historical dictionary) seem to list the metaphorical meaning first. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 10:10
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    I am convinced. However, I am not the only one who is (used to be) confused about these.... added a few findings to my original post. Thanks for clarifying this for me.
    – DavidP
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:44
  • Oh, and the alternative, more common meaning or the connection to the noun are not an issue - the context I had in mind will always be narrow enough that confusion will be essentially impossible.
    – DavidP
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:52
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    @StuartF yes. I think that's why overweighting and overweighted work well. They're clearly verb forms derived from weight in this sense. Overweight, on the other hand, is so much more common as an adjective for people that you really need to clearly establish that the word is being used in the context of assigning weights to variables, before it's seen. Otherwise you're in danger of leading your reader up the garden path
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 9:35
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In common English, "fixate" can be effectively used for placing too much weight if it's used in the context of making a decision, despite the more common meaning of obsessed with.

I found one example of this on lengusa.com: "Foreign investors may have become fixated on the shared vulnerabilities of Turkey and Argentina: high inflation, [...]." That's all there is, but it seems to be in the context of making an investment decision (about either Turkey or Argentina) and they're placing far too much weight on this one thing, mostly ignoring other important factors.

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In addition to fev's excellent suggestions, another term I've heard for this is overindex, meaning roughly "focus too much on".

No dictionaries seem to include this sense, but here are some real-world examples:

Like a golfer might miss changing wind conditions or breaks on the green, executives often overindex on familiar metrics and miss leading indicators. [from The Digital Helix: Transforming Your Organization's DNA to Thrive in the Digital Age, by Michael Gale and Chris Aarons, published 2017; hat-tip to https://www.wordsense.eu/overindex/]

If you find that your team is overindexing on writing perfect SPICIER scenarios, here's a better way to think about it. [from Scenario-focused Engineering, by Austina De Bonte and ‎Drew Fletcher, published 2014, page 447]

So for your examples, "Subjects overweigh factor x" would become "Subjects overindex on factor x", and "Behavior again is in line with overweighing of X" would become "Behavior again is in line with overindexing on X." "Factor X is overweighed" might become "Factor X is overindexed on", but I'm not sure.

That said, I've only encountered this term in corporate/management contexts, as in both of the real-world examples above; so if you're looking to use this in a more academic context (as your examples suggest) then this might not be the best word to use, because non-businesspeople often find this sort of jargon offputting. (I see from examples at https://www.wordsense.eu/overindex/ that the word has both advertising-related and economics-related uses, so I imagine that the corporate/management sense is derived from one of those. That probably accounts for its jargoniness.)

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  • Raymond Chen and UD endorse this definition, but Wiktionary offers an alternative one. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 17:47
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    That's a very interesting addition - I have never seen indexing been used in that sense and as you say, it's probably jargon among a group quite distinct from my audience, but good to know nonetheless.
    – DavidP
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:49
  • @DavidP: Yeah, "overindex" sounds like corporate speak, not something I'd ever say. To me, an "index" is something you use to make lookups more efficient, like in a database. I wonder if their "index" is in the sense of a stock market index like TSX or NASDAQ, and they mean "give to much weight in the (market) index". Which seems a very roundabout way of saying "overvalue" or "overweight", although it does avoid using the same word as "overweight = obese". Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 2:58
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Another option which would probably be more recognizable in less formal writing would be "overstate" or "understate".

The subjects tended to overstate the severity of their symptoms when speaking to younger physicians.

Another casual word for understating is "downplaying" the issue. There's not a single-word equivalent, but the phrase "to play up" does have the opposite meaning of to exaggerate the importance of something.

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This sounds like a version of the lexicographic heuristic, a decision-making strategy so called because of its similarity to looking words up in a dictionary. Derek Jones describes it like this:

The lexicographic heuristic:

The lexicographic heuristic has a low effort cost, but it might not be very accurate. It can also be intransitive; with X preferred to Y, Y preferred to Z, and Z preferred to X. This rule consists of the following steps:

  1. Determine the most important attribute of all the alternatives.
  2. Find the alternative that has the best value for the selected most important attribute.
  3. If two or more alternatives have the same value, select the next most important attribute and repeat the previous step using the set of alternatives whose attribute values tied.
  4. The result is the alternative having the best value on the final, most important, attribute selected.

(The New C Standard: An Economic and Cultural Commentary, Derek M. Jones, 2009)

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A good word for this is to "overestimate" the importance of something and another is to "overplay". "Overevaluate" is a word with the perfect meaning but less used, and "overvalue" too. These are all better than "overstate" because to overstate is to give it excess weight within communication whereas you wanted to give it excess weight in some decision-making evaluation.

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What comes to mind for me when I read your description of the behavior is the adjective disproportionate, which refers to something being too large or too small in relation to something else.

When people place disproportionate emphasis on one factor, they often make suboptimal decisions.

You could turn that into a noun: disproportionality.

But a verb? Not so easily. To disproportion? To misproportion? To malproportion? To malapportion? To misapportion?

The thing I think you're placing too much weight on here is the part of speech. Why does it have to be a verb? You couldn't just give the behavior a name?

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