Previously, Alina dove into how we search and judge information. We prefer to listen to someone we identify with, or someone we deem worthy in authority or expertise. Moreover, it was important to establish why someone is giving you this information to begin with. This is especially important if you have realised you don't actually want the information, and just want to stick your head into the sand like an ostrich.
So what's up ostrich? Why are you doing this to yourself? Don’t you think you’d be much better off knowing more than knowing less? There are certainly benefits to having all the information rather than no information at all. Yet, the majority of people don’t seem to think knowing more is such a good idea. The majority does not want to know. This is known as information avoidance.
So what is information avoidance really? And why do we engage in it? A review of the topic by Sweeny et al (2010) defines information avoidance as any behavior intended to prevent or delay the acquisition of available, but potentially unwanted, information. Information avoidance has a wide range of actions associated with it. It can range from asking someone not to reveal information, to physically leaving a situation to avoid learning information. Or it might mean simply failing to take the necessary steps to reveal the content of information, such as not following the news, or not reading books/newspapers or seeking out services such as healthcare.
Now we have the age old saying: knowledge is power. But knowledge can be even more than just power. Increased knowledge can also translate into wealth, enlightenment, comfort, and even survival. Social scientists have thoroughly established the link between education and income. People with advanced degrees earn far more on average than people without such degrees (Day & Newburger, 2002).
So why would we try to engage in information avoidance? Sweeny et al (2010) also propose a framework for why we engage in this behaviour. They outline three reasons for avoiding information: 1. the information may demand a change in beliefs, 2. the information may demand undesired action, and/or 3. the information itself or the decision to learn information may cause unpleasant emotions.
Let’s discuss these motivations in turn. Firstly, people can avoid information because the information might force them to give up or adjust cherished beliefs. Information can serve to provide evidence either in support of or in opposition to a belief. But sometimes, people may be unwilling to learn information that challenges an important belief. People tend to seek information that confirms their attitudes, beliefs, and decisions, not information that challenges those (Smith et al., 2008).
People might avoid information that challenges any of three types of beliefs: beliefs about the self, about other people, and about their world.
With regards to the self, people are motivated to maintain a positive self-image. As such, new information can be a threat, as it may allude to negative characteristics about a person. Second, people are motivated to maintain consistency in their self-views. As such new information can be a threat as it can be inconsistent with what is already known. The same two motives, self-enhancement and consistency, drive information avoidance regarding beliefs about others. People want to maintain consistent beliefs about others, and avoid information that is inconsistent with existing beliefs about those others. For example, several studies find that people tend to avoid information that disconfirms their stereotypes about people from other racial and cultural groups (Johnston, 1996; Johnston & Macrae, 1994), but this tendency is reversed in people who are very low in prejudice (Wyer, 2004). Finally, regarding beliefs about the world, people tend to seek information consistent with their worldview and avoid information that might challenge their worldview. A worldview can be something as simple as the belief that good things happen to good people. To the extent that people endorse a particular worldview, they may be motivated to avoid information inconsistent with that worldview. Again, the main driver here is consistency.
The second reason people may wish to avoid information is that the information might obligate action or behavior that they would rather not undertake. Information often serves the purpose of providing an update about a situation, and this update might make the person feel obligated to take action. This action might be painful in itself, but it might lead to a multitude of negative outcomes as well. Learning that a toothache requires a root canal is not only a hassle, but also expensive and painful. As a result, people would rather walk around with the toothache not knowing how bad it really is, rather than dealing with it. Similarly, a study of commercial sex workers and their clients in South Africa revealed that one reason given for not getting tested for AIDS was recognition that a positive test result would demand a change in behavior (Vargas, 2001). Likewise, research reveals that the primary reason women in Nigeria gave for delaying a visit to their physician about a suspicious lump in the breast was a concern that they may have to undergo a mastectomy (Ajekigbe, 1991).
The third reason people might want to avoid information is because of the potential emotional consequences of the information or of the decision to learn information. In a study of gay and bisexual men given the opportunity to learn their HIV status, almost 80% of men who declined to learn their status reported concern over the psychological impact of a positive test result (Lyter, Valdiserri, Kingsley, Amoroso, & Rinaldo, 1987). That is, these men avoided information in an effort to avoid an unpleasant experience.
These three motivations to avoid information are not the only motivations at play when people face information. Instead, people balance the desire to avoid against the various motivations to learn information. People might be motivated to satisfy their curiosity simply for the sake of reducing uncertainty (Loewenstein, 1994). Similarly, people might hope to learn something that brings them happiness, relief, or pride, or that reduces negative feelings of worry or fear or provides a sense of closure to an uncertain situation (Meissen, Mastromauro, Kiely, McNamara & Myers, 1991). Consistent with this idea, evidence suggests that emotional reassurance was strongly correlated with interest in undergoing genetic testing for breast cancer (Shiloh & Ilan, 2005).
So what have we learned here? There are scientifically grounded reasons for avoiding information. However, with the examples mentioned of information avoidance, we often stumble back upon not wanting to know a diagnosis, not wanting to deal with unwanted information
However the case, the fact that we don’t know, doesn’t actually make the problem we don’t know about go away. As a result, you might just want to get it over with. Sorry ostrich, time to take your head out of the sand again. Knowledge is power.
Ajekigbe, A. T. (1991). Fear of mastectomy: The most common factor responsible for late presentation of carcinoma of the breast in Nigeria. Clinical Oncology, 3. 78 – 80.
Day, J. C., & Newburger, E. C. (2002). Current population reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau
Johnston, L. (1996). Resisting change: Information-seeking and stereotype change. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 799 – 825.
Johnston, L. C., & Macrae, C. N. (1994). Changing social stereotypes: The case of the information seeker. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 581–592
Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 75–98.
Lyter, D. W., Valdiserri, R. O., Kingsley, L. A., Amoroso, W. P., & Rinaldo Jr., C. R. (1987). The HIV antibody test: Why gay and bisexual men want or do not want to know their results. Public Health Reports, 102, 468 – 474.
Meissen, G. J., Mastromauro, C. A., Kiely, D. K., McNamara, D. S., & Myers, R. H. (1991). Understanding the decision to take the predictive test for Huntington disease. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 39, 404 – 410.
Shiloh, S., & Ilan, S. (2005). To test of not to test? Moderators of the relationship between risk perceptions and interest in predictive genetic testing. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28, 467– 479.
Smith, S. M., Fabrigar, L. R., & Norris, M. E. (2008). Reflecting on six decades of selective exposure research: Progress, challenges, and opportunities. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 464 – 493.
Sweeny, K., Melnyk, D., Miller, W., & Shepperd, J. A. (2010). Information avoidance: Who, what, when, and why. Review of general psychology, 14(4), 340.
Vargas, C. A. (2001). Coping with HIV/AIDS in Durban’s commercial sex industry. AIDS Care, 13, 351–365
Wyer, N. A. (2004). Not all stereotypic biases are created equal: Evidence for a stereotype-disconfirming bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 706 –720.