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(featured image credit: Edmond Wells CC BY)

Master of our thoughts

We can choose to find out what we want to know, and choose not to find out what we don’t want to know, but can we also choose to ignore what we know?

The idea that information has value will not surprise many people. Companies and governments possess information that they would, each for their own reason, rather keep secret or confidential. Other governments or rival companies, believing they can profit from such information, engage people who will try and capture that information, and often pay them handsomely for it. But it’s not just in espionage that money changes hands in return for information.

8 pence for so much information — it’s a bargain!

Among the many eye openers I remember from my first school trip to London (coming from rural little Belgium) was the ubiquity of evening paper sellers (at the time there were even two competing papers, the Evening Standard and the Evening News which later merged). Tens of thousands of commuters on the way home happily paid 8p for information about what had gone on in their city, the country and the world. Many of them had had done the same in the morning. Publishers probably think back with fondness to those good old days — times (and newspapers’ circulations) have changed, but we have not stopped paying for information. For what else are our subscriptions to cable or satellite TV, or to internet service providers? There are no material goods or services involved — it’s all information. And even if we don’t pay with money for ‘free’ services like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, we still pay for it by sharing information about ourselves, or by accepting sometimes relentless advertising.

We are just so curious to find stuff out — David Attenborough nature documentaries, Eastenders, Panorama, what our friends have been up to last weekend… it’s all information, and we want it.

Curious, but not that curious

So, wouldn’t it be nice if we could also find out what is in other people’s minds? Not with evil intentions, I hasten to add (obtaining the information needed to empty someone’s bank account could would be almost too easy), but just to satisfy our curiosity.

What do my colleagues really think about me? Is the boss really going to consider giving me a pay rise or is she just fobbing me off? What is my spouse going to get me as a birthday present? Do they really think my bum is not looking too big in this, or are they just humouring me? Did that member of my team genuinely not get my email, or did he simply not want to answer it?

On second thoughts, maybe we actually don’t want to find out the answer to all of these questions, even if we could. But can we measure this information aversion?

We can certainly try. Emily Ho, a behavioural scientist at Northwestern University and colleagues have developed a scale for measuring people’s information preferences — what would we rather know, or not know? It uses questions reflecting a variety of factual scenarios (the doctor telling us the number of years we can expect to live, finding out what the discounted sale price is for a large appliance we bought at the normal price a while ago), but also several that refer to what other people think about us (how people really rated our toast at your best friend’s wedding, how attractive others think we are). The survey has some limitations: for example, there is no indifference option (“I don’t care”). Only being able to say that you actively either do or don’t want to know something means you may come out as more information averse than you really are. Asking people how much (if anything) they would be willing to pay to obtain information, or to not be given information, might paint a more nuanced picture, but that might be harder to administer. (You can try out the scale for yourself here.)

But why might we be information averse in the first place? Russell Golman and colleagues explore this in a paper on Information Avoidance (which I briefly mentioned recently). The authors discuss a surprisingly large range of possible reasons for wanting to avoid certain kinds of information. They are divided into two categories, hedonic avoidance (to prevent us feeling bad), and strategic avoidance (to prevent it adversely influencing our decisions or behaviour).

Why we don’t want to know

An example of hedonic avoidance is not wanting to know how our investment portfolio would look had we decided to invest in different funds, five years ago. Such ignorance prevents us feeling regret for having made the wrong choice in the past. We may choose not to find out whether we carry the variant BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which would mean we have a heightened probability of developing breast, ovarian or prostate cancer, if we want to avoid feeling anxious. Having just run a race and convincingly beaten our target time, we may want to avoid finding out how we rank in our age category to avoid contaminating our elation with disappointment. Similarly, we may avoid information that makes us feel bad (not wanting to know how old someone else thinks we are), or that might confront us with uncomfortable cognitive dissonance (not wanting to know whether our best friend has cheated on their partner).

If we are eyeing an appealing piece of cake, but are also concerned about the damage it might do to our waistline, we may decide not to find out how many calories it represents, because otherwise we may have to forgo it and feel obliged to have some celery stalks instead. That’s a case of strategic avoidance. We can use it in reverse, too, and choose not to check the larder to see if there is any cake, lest we be tempted. Another example is what is known as plausible deniability: if we don’t know about something, we can also not be responsible to do something about it, and avoid being blamed.

You don’t want to know how many calories. No seriously, you don’t want to know (image: couleur/Pixabay)

So, is such information aversion irrational? The conventional economic perspective would suggest it is: rather than take costly steps to avoid receiving the information, we could just ignore it if it doesn’t suit us. But that overlooks the fact that ignoring information is not all that straightforward, or even desirable: information that may serve us in the long term may cause us considerable discomfort in the short term.

If we know we have a heightened risk of developing cancer, we can opt for more frequent check-ups to ensure anything suspicious is spotted early. But we may then also be permanently more anxious, especially if — as does happen — scans produce false positive results. Even if we would never actually get cancer (or die unexpectedly by another cause before it happens), we are still suffering a reduction in wellbeing through the elevated fear. Is it possible to benefit from the information, and at the same time ignore it so it doesn’t affect us?

Perhaps less morbidly, imagine your colleague has left her payslip on her desk, so you could walk over and see what she is earning. You have the same age and qualification, and do pretty much the same job, with the same responsibility. If you looked, and found her salary is a lot higher than yours, how would it affect your relationship with her, and your job satisfaction? You could go and see your boss and demand pay parity. But would you actually do that? What if the boss refuses? Taking a peek and satisfying your curiosity comes at a cost — or could you subsequently ignore what you found out?

If I ask you not to think of an elephant, what is the first thing that crosses your mind? Precisely. (This is an experiment attributed to the cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who uses it in his introductory Cognitive Science course at Berkeley.)

In some cases, we may well be master of our thoughts. If we find out that our friend, contrary to what he says, actually does think our bum looks big in this, we can try to ignore this, and counterfactually act as if we didn’t know she is just humouring us. After all, that is precisely what we did all along before you discovered the truth. But doing so is hard, and it would take a superhuman effort to do this with all the information that might affect as adversely.

The best way to be master of our thoughts is to keep out the information that leads to thoughts we cannot master. Even if that takes deliberate and costly information avoidance.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on July 10, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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