We live in an unprecedented "age of information." Dieters have access to detailed nutritional data. Citizens have access to a wide range of news sources. People planning for retirement have access to a massive amount of investment information.
Yet, for all the information that is out there, people make use of very little of it. For example, dieters often prefer not to look at the number of calories in a tasty dessert. People choose news sources that align with their views rather than challenging them. Indeed, people at times avoid useful information that is available to them.
Drawing on research in economics, psychology, and sociology, Carnegie Mellon University's George Loewenstein, Russell Golman and David Hagmann illustrate how people avoid information that threatens their happiness and wellbeing. They show that, while a simple failure to get information is the most clear-cut case of "information avoidance," people have a wide range of other information-avoidance strategies at their disposal. They are also adept at directing their attention to information that affirms what they believe or that reflects favorably upon them, and at forgetting information they wish were not true.
"The standard account of information in economics is that people should seek out information that will aid in decision making, should never actively avoid information, and should dispassionately update their views when they encounter new valid information," said Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology who co-founded the field of behavioral economics.
Loewenstein continued, "But people often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive. Bad teachers, for example, could benefit from feedback from students, but are much less likely to pore over teaching ratings than skilled teachers."
Even when people cannot outright ignore information, they often have much latitude in how to interpret it. Questionable evidence is often treated as credible when it confirms what someone wants to believe. By the same token, evidence that meets the rigorous demands of science is often discounted if it goes against what people want to believe.
Information avoidance can harm individual wellbeing. For instance, missing opportunities to learn about financial investments to prepare for retirement. It also has large societal implications. The demand for ideologically aligned information drives media bias. This fuels political polarization. When basic facts are not part of a shared understanding, the foundation of societal discourse disappears.
"I think early in the days of the Internet, there was great optimism that all of this flood of information was going to transform democratic politics, educate the electorate and so on. And now the mood had become much much more grim," stated George Lowenstein in an interview with the American Economic Association.
"An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us," said Hagmann, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences. "Bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs - the usual strategy that people employ in attempts at persuasion -- is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing. If we want to reduce political polarization, we have to find ways not only to expose people to conflicting information, but to increase people's receptivity to information that challenges what they believe and want to believe."
Yet, information avoidance isn't always a mistake or a reflection of a lazy mind.
"People do it for a reason," said Golman, assistant professor of social and decision sciences. "Those who do not take a genetic test can enjoy their life until their illness can't be ignored, an inflated sense of our own abilities can help us to pursue big and worthwhile goals, and not looking at our financial investments when markets are down may keep us from selling in a panic."
Understanding when, why, and how people avoid information can help governments and businesses reach their audiences without drowning them in unwanted messages.
"Usually when we think about changing someone else's mind or persuading them of our view of the world, the strategy we tend to pursue is let's just throw a lot of information at them," Hagmann said in an interview. "Here's my fact, and here's this other article and see these 20 sources to what I've just claimed. And to the extent that people avoid information that threatens their views, that may not actually be a good strategy. Maybe rather than throwing more information at people, try to build personal relationships with them."
Source: Carnegie Mellon University