Do You Trust Information You Don’t Want to Hear?

In America’s current polarized climate, social observers have noted, people tend to turn to news sources that reflect their political beliefs and avoid listening to anything that challenges them. But without a shared understanding of what’s going on, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to achieve cooperation and compromise.

It is not only regarding politics that people avoid or ignore information that may be useful, according to a new study from Carnegie Mellon University. Dieters may choose to overlook how many calories there are in a rich dessert. People with a family history of a genetic disease may skip screening tests that could reveal whether their health is at risk.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Literature, the study’s authors explain how and why people deliberately avoid information that could threaten their happiness and well-being. “People often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive,” said George Loewenstein, who co-founded the field of behavioral economics.

Loewenstein and his colleagues found that when people cannot avoid encountering information that goes against their beliefs, they may discount it; they point to widespread disbelief and doubts about scientific evidence of climate change. By the same token, questionable evidence may be treated as credible if it confirms what someone wants to believe.

There can be understandable reasons for avoiding information. Not taking a genetic test could allow someone to enjoy life until illness can’t be ignored. Not following the stock market could keep investors from selling in a panic.

Co-author David Hagmann notes that “bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs … is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing.”

To reduce the political divide, “we have to find ways not only to expose people to conflicting information, but to increase people’s receptivity to information that challenges what they believe and want to believe,” he said.

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