Choosing Not to Know: The Desire to Avoid Information

Modern technology has brought us unprecedented access to information. We can exchange ideas with people all over the world, monitor the performance of our investment portfolios in real-time, and learn about our risks of developing a variety of medical conditions long before experiencing any symptoms. And yet, many do not avail themselves of this information. Instead, social media users curate their feeds to filter those who view the world differently. Investors choose not to check the value of their investment portfolios on days when markets are down. And even those who experience symptoms consistent with medical conditions avoid getting tested. Far from being a neutral input to facilitate making good decisions, information at times imposes an emotional toll on the recipient.

We construct a psychological scale in which people report how interested they are in receiving information across a range of scenarios related to their personal characteristics, finances, and health. We show that people have “information preferences” that are stable over time and predict decisions in unrelated domains, such as their work or the environment. Information can convey good or bad news, and while it may be painful in the moment, it is often useful only in the future. Consistent with this view, we find that people who are more willing to take risks and who value the future more are also more willing to receive potentially unpleasant information. Conversely, demographic characteristics like gender or education do not correlate with information preferences.

People’s complex relationship with information matters not only for personal wellbeing, but also for organizational policies. Employees may be unwilling to attend to critical feedback about their performance, even if it could help them perform better in the long run. And consumers may fail to respond to information campaigns because they prefer not to think about the topic. Overcoming the desire to avoid information may often be the first step in ensuring that information is attended to.