31 March 2017

Don’t Want to Know

Welcome back. Did you happen to see my blog post of a few weeks ago, Political Fact Checking? I summarized a study of how partisanship and prior beliefs influence the way people process political misinformation, specifically Donald Trump’s false statements during the presidential primaries. The results suggested that politicians can spread misinformation without losing supporters.

Avoiding information. (Modified
from photo on multiple websites)
I ask if you saw the post, because there’s a recent study I thought provided further insight on the topic. Investigators from Carnegie Mellon University examined how and why people purposely avoid information as well as some of the consequences. 

Their assessment, which was based on review of research published in economics, psychology and other fields, focused on active avoidance--when the individual is aware the information is available and either has avoided or would avoid free access to it.

Information Avoidance Methods
The investigators categorized the principal tactics used to avoid information, presented here with examples.

   Physical Avoidance -- avoiding certain newspapers, TV or radio shows or conversations with specific people; not returning for results of medical tests (e.g., HIV AIDS).
   Inattention -- seeing a headline and deciding not to read the article, or reading the article and choosing not to think about it.
   Biased Interpretation -- weighing and interpreting information in a manner that supports what they believe and denigrating evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
   Forgetting -- deliberately and selectively failing to review negative information and, in time, forgetting it. (Notably, forgetting may help people deal with bad experiences.)
   Self-Handicapping -- choosing tasks that are too easy or too difficult or taking actions that undermine their performance to avoid information about their own abilities.

Information Avoidance Consequences
I doubt you would have any difficulty coming up with a list of consequences of avoiding information. The effect on decision making topped the investigators’ and probably anyone’s list, whether it’s not reading calories on a label or potentially useful feedback.

Media bias is another significant consequence. Media outlets have incentive to provide biased coverage that aligns with the perspective of their target audience. Nowadays it’s easy to load up on information while avoiding perspectives that challenge one’s existing views.

Among other consequences the investigators discuss are groupthink, when people adopt the shared belief rather than collect their own information; spread of disease could occur if people avoid being tested out of fear they have a contagious disease, or the related ethical transgression if one avoids being tested so as to not confront the dilemma of sharing bad new the test might reveal; and climate change denial, where rejection of a near-unanimous scientific consensus almost by definition requires information avoidance.

Wrap Up
People avoid information that threatens their happiness and wellbeing, which are intertwined with their beliefs. “Not knowing” proffers plausible deniability; knowing might make them feel bad.

Thinking about the earlier blog post on political fact-checking, I would expect those who did not support Trump during the primary would have fact-checked much of what he said because the results often made them happy.

In contrast, I would expect Trump supporters to have avoided fact-checking, certainly, because they trusted their candidate, but also because discovering he was wrong would have made them feel bad. Of course, there had to be those who just didn’t care.

Thanks for stopping by.

Carnegie Mellon study in Journal of Economic Literature:
Article on study on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170310121732.htm

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