Study: People filter out certain information to protect their happiness

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Is ignorance truly bliss? Too much of anything isn’t necessarily a good thing and a recent study says that goes for information too. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, and Harvard Universities find some people prefer to filter out information that poses as a threat to their happiness.

“Economists have long thought ‘the more, the better,’ when it comes to information,” Carnegie Mellon’s George Lowenstein says in a university release. “This thinking doesn’t fully reflect people’s complex relationship with information. We wanted to create a way to measure an individual’s tendency to pursue or shy away from information.”

Bad information: Many people don’t like spoilers

For the study, researchers examined 2,000 participants, measuring their craving for new information in several aspects of life. Eleven scenarios address these questions, such as if a person usually avoids information that could lead to pain or if they see the benefits of staying in the know.

Given the option, choosing not to know certain information is a reflex response for some. In one experiment, participants were given the option to learn a portion of a routine exam. A third of respondents preferred not to learn. The study also finds one in four people don’t want to know if a close friend enjoys a book before reading it themselves.

Researchers say the desire to avoid certain information remains consistent over time. For those who see the value in gaining new information, even if it’s painful, participants find that knowledge can be pertinent to their future choices.

The risk of staying informed

The study adds news is viewed as either good or bad for many people. This turns it into a risk to be taken when it comes to your emotional wellbeing. Survey respondents who take that risk are more likely to want to learn information. Research shows that people who tend to be impatient avoid learning information.

“It is tempting to think that people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you are the ones engaging in information avoidance,” researcher David Hagmann says. “But we find no differences in information avoidance by political ideology, income, gender or – perhaps surprisingly – education. Trading off the potential pain from receiving bad news against the uncertain and delayed benefits from making more informed decisions is something we all seem to do.”

The study appears in the journal of Management Science.

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