Logic tells us that if information is useful, we should pay attention to it, take note of it, and act accordingly. It is irrational to hide our heads in the sand so as not to see information that can benefit us or give us some useful clue for the future. However, many times we do it. We refuse to see reality.
Researchers at Northwestern University asked more than 2,300 people if they would like to learn about different types of information that could be useful to them in three areas: health, finances and interpersonal relationships.
32% of the time people decided they did not want to know that information. Psychologists concluded that in some cases we actively avoid information that can help us, be useful or even beneficial to improve our plans for the future. Why?
Choose not to know
To ignore is an active verb. It implies a decisión, in a more or less conscious way, of not to know, deepen, search or understand more. There are two major reasons why we set in motion the mechanism of motivated ignorance: the lack of perceived control and the hedonic cost.
Our tendency to avoid potentially useful or beneficial information increases as our sense of “perceived control” diminishes. In other words, when we believe that we cannot do anything to avoid the situation, we prefer to ignore certain information, such as the probability of suffering a serious genetic disease.
However, we can always do something, so that, in theory at least, all information is useful, if we know how to use it wisely. Although we cannot always change the results, we can change the path. We may not be able to stop the course of a disease, for example, but we could improve the quality of life during that time with proper treatment.
Another reason because we embrace ignorance is the hedonic cost. When we believe that information will affect our subjective well-being in the short term, making us enjoy less the present, we will tend to ignore it, even if it represents a greater cost in the future.
Finding out that we are paid less than other co-workers, for example, might make us enjoy less the work, so we might prefer not to know it. However, once again, it all depends on how we use that information, since we could take advantage of it to get a raise or perhaps it is the push we need to look for a different job where we feel more fulfilled.
How to escape from this bias?
Obviously, not all of us react the same way to information that is difficult to manage or with the potential to momentarily destabilize us. It has been found that people who accept risks better and those who are highly focused on the future, are more likely to pay attention to useful information, whether it be negative or positive. So are those who show a more curious attitude to life and people who are more receptive to opposing points of view.
That means that we can avoid that tendency to ignore what we don’t like, even if it is valuable and useful information.
The first step is to recognize that willful ignorance is everywhere, including in ourselves. For example, when researchers asked participants if they wanted to know how much time they spent lounging at work, using social media, or chatting in front of the coffee machine, two out of five didn’t want to know it. And one every five also did not want to know how his co-workers rated his strengths and weaknesses.
The second step is to be aware that it all depends on how we use that information. Living avoiding the reality, having limited knowledge of the environment, will make us make biased decisions that will lead us to maladaptive behaviors.
Closing our eyes will not make problems or adversity go away, on the contrary, it is likely that they will continue to grow and end up hitting us harder.
Instead, we need to realize that information is freedom, even though it may be hard to adjust it to our mind sets or life trajectory at first.
Ho, E. et. Al. (2020) Measuring Information Preferences. Management Science; 10.1287.
Stackpole, T. (2020) We actively avoid information that can help us. In: Harvard Business Review.
Shepherd, S. & Kay, A. C. (2011) On the Perpetuation of Ignorance: System Dependence, System Justification, and the Motivated Avoidance of Sociopolitical Information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 102(2): 264 –280.