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Why Do People Avoid Facts That Could Help Them?

Credit: Getty Images In our information age, an unprecedented amount of data are right at our fingertips. We run genetic tests on our unborn children to prepare for the worst. We get regular cancer screenings and monitor our health on our wrist and our phone. And we can learn about our ancestral ties and genetic…

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found that 90 percent of them would not want to find out, if they could, when their partner would die or what the cause would be. And 87 percent also reported not wanting to be aware of the date of their own death. When asked if they’d want to know if, and when, they’d get divorced, more than 86 percent said no.

Related research points to a similar conclusion: We often prefer to avoid learning information that could cause us pain. Investors are less likely to log on to their stock portfolios on days when the market is down. And one laboratory experiment found that subjects who were informed that they were rated less attractive than other participants were willing to pay money not to find out their exact rank.

More consequentially, people avoid learning certain information related to their health even if having such knowledge would allow them to identify therapies to manage their symptoms or treatment. As one study found, only 7 percent of people at high risk for Huntington’s disease elect to find out whether they have the condition, despite the availability of a genetic test that is generally paid for by health insurance plans and the clear usefulness of the information for alleviating the chronic disease’s symptoms. Similarly,participants in a laboratory experiment chose to forgo part of their earnings to avoid learning the outcome of a test for a treatable sexually transmitted disease. Such avoidance was even greater when the disease symptoms were more severe.

Emily Ho, now at Northwestern University, and her colleagues recently developed a scale to measure people’s relative aversion to potentially unpleasant but also potentially useful information. (You can learn about your own tendency to avoid information here.) The researchers presented 380 participants with various scenarios designed to test their desire to know across three domains (personal health, finances and other people’s perceptions of them), with each scenario presenting the possibility of a favorable or unfavorable outcome for the participant. Scenarios included subjects learning their risk for a particular medical condition, finding out the performance of an investment opportunity they missed and knowing the truth about how well a speech they gave went.

The seriously information-averse were a minority, although a substantial one: On average, participants reported that they would definitely or probably not want to receive such information 32 percent of the time. About 45 percent would avoid finding out how much they would have gained by choosing a more profitable investment fund in the past; 33 percent would prefer not to know what someone meant when describing them as quirky; and 24 percent would not want to be aware of whether a friend liked a book they had given that person as a birthday gift.

The researchers also documented personal characteristics of the participants, some of which proved to be significant variables. While the degree to which people wanted to avoid information wasn’t associated with gender, income, age or education, subjects who were higher in extraversion, conscientiousness and openness to new experiences were more prone to seek out such information. Meanwhile those with high neuroticism scores showed the opposite tendency. (Among those who were more open to such information, there was often at least one domain in which they opted to remain uninformed.) In a second study, participants rated the same series of scenarios twice, four weeks apart. Their responses remained stable over time.

Not surprisingly, Ho and her team found, the motivation to avoid information impacts our behavior. In one of their experiments, participants completed the initial survey on knowledge avoidance. Two weeks later, they had the option to visit a Web site with potentially valuable information that they might find painful to learn. For instance, one site compared the average salaries of men and women across occupations. Another contained health data about people’s individual risk of burnout. Participants’ tendency to avoid information, as measured by the initial survey, correlated with avoiding such Web sites.

This general body of research suggests that deliberate ignorance is a widespread preference not only in relation to painful news and events, such as death and divorce, but also pleasurable ones, such as birth. When Gigerenzer and Garcia-Retamero asked their 2,000-plus participants if they wanted to learn about positive life events, most preferred ignorance over knowledge. More than 60 percent indicated not wanting to know about their next Christmas present. And about 37 percent said they’d prefer not to find out the sex of their unborn child. This result might have something to do with the possibility of disappointment, but the bigger issue, this research shows, is that people enjoy the suspense.

Information avoidance can be a problem, of course, if it keeps us from learning things that would help us make smarter choices (those regarding our health, for example, or our finances). But declining to learn available information does allow us to forego some of the suffering that knowing the future may cause—and to enjoy the sense of suspense that pleasurable events provide. There seems to be some magic in the maybe.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. Gareth, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is the series editor of Best American Infographics and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Francesca Gino

Francesca Gino is an award-winning behavioral scientist and Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, as well as Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. Follow her on Twitter @francescagino.

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