We Actively Avoid Information That Can Help Us

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Why do people proactively avoid important and useful information that could help them in up to 50 percent of cases?  We’ll examine the real-world implications for managers, marketers, investors, and consumers.  

Recently, Emily Ho of Northwestern, David Hagmann of Harvard, and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon asked more than 2,300 survey participants whether they would like to get various kinds of information that could be useful to them, including how their retirement accounts stacked up against their peers’, what listeners thought of a speech they’d recently given, and how coworkers rated their strengths and weaknesses. The team found that the respondents opted out 32 percent of the time, on average.

The conclusion: We actively often avoid information that can help us.

The conventional wisdom is that people should be eager to get information that can benefit them. That’s the idea behind marketing and public health messaging. But across several scenarios, this research showed that 15 percent to more than 50 percent of people declined the information offered. This is the first study to examine the prevalence of this phenomenon in many contexts.  And it shows that this is a serious issue. It’s not just one or two people burying their heads in the sand.

The researchers chose three domains: health, finances, and interpersonal issues. They asked whether people wanted to know how long they’d live, how much time they spent slacking off at work, how their retirement savings compared with others’, feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, and more. They wanted to run a big, comprehensive survey about the decisions that people are grappling with every day.  Most people go to the doctor.  Everyone thinks about money. The researchers wanted to better understand the situations in which people want information and those in which they really shy away from it.

These findings are more about the amount and type of information that people avoid than about the number and type of people who avoid information.  It appears that information avoidance is pervasive, but it also seems to depend on context. Some of the same people who didn’t want to know their life expectancy did want to know how...

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