Picture the scene: you’re attending a regular medical checkup, fielding questions about your health and lifestyle, when your doctor tells you they can accurately estimate your life expectancy from your answers. Would you want to hear the truth, no matter how brutal it might be? Or would you prefer to live in ignorance?
If you belong to the latter category, you’re not alone. A new study in Management Science has found that many of us would rather avoid stressful or uncomfortable truths — even if they might benefit us.
To find out who is most likely to avoid information and why, Emily Ho from Fordham University and colleagues first presented 380 participants with a series of scenarios designed to test their desire for knowledge about a situation that could have a favourable or unfavourable outcome for them. The scenarios replicated situations that participants were likely to have encountered in the past and fell into three broad categories: personal health, finances, and other people’s perceptions.
Participants were asked whether they would want to look at how well a missed investment opportunity was performing, for example, whether or not they’d want to know their risk for a particular medical condition, or if they’d want to know the truth about how well a speech had gone. (If you’re interested in finding out your own tendency to avoid information, you can see all the scenarios and take the test here). Participants’ personality traits were also measured.
Information avoidance was incredibly common: on average, participants indicated that they would definitely or probably not want to receive information 32% of the time. Overall, these figures were fairly stable across domains: an average of 24% would prefer not to know if a friend hated a book given as a gift, for instance, whilst 29% would avoid finding out the impact stress had had on their long-term health. Even among those who were more likely to want to hear potentially troubling information, there was often at least one domain in which they opted to remain uninformed.
Participants’ likelihood of avoiding information wasn’t associated with their gender, income, age or education. However, it was related to particular personality traits: those higher in extraversion, conscientiousness and openness to new experiences tended to seek information more, while those with high neuroticism scores showed a higher likelihood of wanting to stay in the dark.
A second study, which saw participants rate the scenarios again, four weeks apart, suggested their responses remain stable over time.
A final study looked at participants’ real-world behaviour. In this case, two weeks after completing the initial survey on information avoidance, participants were given the option to be sent to a website containing potentially valuable information that they might be motivated to avoid: for instance, an occupational website that compared average salaries between men and women, or a health site informing people about their individual risk of burnout.
Results suggested that participants’ tendency to avoid information as measured by the survey did have an impact on real-world decisions: avoidant and seeking scores correlated with the decision to avoid or read information respectively.
The findings may have important uses: understanding in which situations people tend to ignore or avoid information could be vital for organisations or governments sending out public service information, for example.
We already knew, to some extent, that there are cases where people avoid information — interventions that seek to improve financial literacy tend to have smaller impacts than hoped, for example, partly because some people feel so anxious about money they’ll go out of their way to avoid thinking about it. Building this knowledge into the design of social interventions may be a useful way to approach such individual differences in information seeking.