Why we deliberately avoid certain types of information

The way we access information has seldom been under more scrutiny, with our ‘post-truth’ age prompting a great deal of analysis as to both how we access information, and the reliability of the information we access.

It’s a fascinating situation that derives directly from the sheer volume of information we have access to.  We have moved on from worrying about the volume of information towards both its quality, but also the ability of people to make decisions based upon the best information.

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon examines how we often discount information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs or threatens our happiness in some way.

Why we ignore information

Whilst simply not obtaining the best information is the most common form of information avoidance, there are also a wide range of strategies deployed by people.  What’s more, we are very adroit at conforming to the confirmation bias, and finding information that affirms what we already believe.

“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,” the authors say. “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 it’s very difficult to ignore information completely, there is often considerable variance in how we interpret the information.  For instance, we might give dodgy evidence credibility when it confirms what we either already believe or desperately want to believe.  Likewise, credible information is discounted when it runs counter to what we believe.

Helping us to help ourselves

Suffice to say, if we base our actions on false information, this is seldom a good thing.  For instance, we might fail to treat disease at an early stage.  It also has societal impacts, whether in terms of political polarization or climate change denial.  When we can no longer agree on basic facts, the foundation of societal discourse withers away.

“An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us,” the authors say. “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.”

Whilst information avoidance may seem like an irrational act, it is often something we do for a clear reason.  For instance, we may put off going to the doctor in order to enjoy life more in the short-term.

It’s only when we begin to understand some of the thinking behind information avoidance, can we begin to tackle it and ensure that key messages, whether from governments or other organizations, reach their audience effectively.

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