The magic of ignorance: what people are afraid to know and why
In this information age, we always have an unprecedented amount of data at hand. We conduct genetic tests on babies in the womb to prepare for the worst. We do regular cancer screenings and monitor our health with wristbands and phones. And we can learn about our family ties and genetic predisposition with a simple smear of saliva.
However, there is information that many of us do not want to know. A study of more than 2,000 people in Germany and Spain, conducted by Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and Rocio García-Retamero of the University of Granada in Spain, found that 90% of participants did not want to know when their partner or what reason. And 87% also do not want to know the date of their death. They were also asked if they wanted to know if they would divorce and when, and more than 86% said no.
Similar studies come to a similar conclusion: we often avoid information that might hurt us. Investors are less likely to enter their stock portfolios on days when the market falls. And in one laboratory experiment, participants who were told they had a lower rating than others were willing to pay if they didn’t know their numbers.
Moreover, people are reluctant to learn certain information related to their health, even if such knowledge will allow them to determine the methods of treatment. One study found that only 7% of people at high risk for Huntington’s disease decide to find out if they have the disease, despite the fact that genetic testing is usually paid for by health insurance plans, and this knowledge is certainly useful for relieving symptoms of chronic disease. Likewise, the participants in the experiment decided to give up part of their earnings in order not to learn the results of a test for a curable sexually transmitted disease. Such refusals become even more with more serious symptoms of the disease.
Emily Ho, now at Northwestern University, and her colleagues recently developed a scale to measure people’s antipathy to potentially unpleasant but useful information. The researchers presented 380 participants with different scenarios to test their desire for information about three areas (personal health, finance, and their perceptions by others), with each scenario having the possibility of a favorable or unfavorable outcome for the participant. Participants could learn about the risk of a specific medical condition, the effectiveness of a missed investment opportunity, or get an opinion on how well they performed in a speech.
A firm rejection of information was demonstrated by a minority, albeit significant: on average, participants said that they “definitely” or “probably” would not want to receive such information in 32% of cases. About 45% would rather not know how much they could earn by choosing a more profitable investment fund, and 33% – what the person meant when they called them quirky. 24% would not like to know if a friend liked the book they gave him for his birthday.
The researchers also looked at the personal characteristics of the participants, some of which were found to be significant variables. It turned out that the degree to which people wanted to avoid information was not related to gender, income, age, or education. Information was not avoided by participants prone to extroversion, conscientiousness, and open to new experiences, while people with high rates of neuroticism showed the opposite trend. (Those who were more open to such information still preferred to remain in the dark about at least one of the proposed areas.) In a second study, participants evaluated the same series of scenarios twice, four weeks apart. Their responses have remained stable over time.
Ho and her team found that avoiding information influences our behavior. In one of their experiments, they surveyed the participants’ desire for information. After two weeks, they were given the opportunity to visit a website with potentially valuable information that could be painful. For example, one site compared the average wages of men and women in different occupations. The other contained data on the risk of burnout. The tendency of participants to avoid information noted in the initial survey correlated with their reluctance to visit these websites.
Based on all this research, it can be said that people generally choose to ignore not only painful news and events such as death and divorce, but also pleasant ones such as birth. Gigerenzer and Garcia-Retamero asked their more than 2,000 members if they wanted to learn about positive life experiences, and most responded negatively. Over 60% said they didn’t want to know about their next Christmas present. And about 37% said they would prefer not to know the gender of their unborn child. This result may have something to do with the possibility of frustration, but rather the fact that people enjoy the wait.
Of course, ignoring information can be a problem if it prevents us from making smarter choices (for example, in terms of health or finance). But the rejection of some information makes it possible to avoid the suffering that it can cause, and enjoy the feeling of uncertainty that pleasant events bring. There seems to be some magic in it.