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March 16, 2017

‘Information Avoidance’ is a major problem in today’s world

Due at least in part to the combination of the Internet and the availability of constantly-connected phones and tablets, modern society has easier access to a greater amount of information than ever before – but as the authors of a new study have discovered, they don’t always want to use it.

Writing in the Journal of Economic Literature, Carnegie Mellon University researchers George Loewenstein, Russell Golman and David Hagmann explained that people are essentially creating their own realities by deliberately avoiding ay information deemed to be a threat to their overall happiness or wellbeing – a phenomenon they refer to as “information avoidance.”

For instance, people may have a tendency to focus on a news source that aligns with the political ideology while avoiding any reports that make their candidates or party of choice look bad, or an individual may ignore an important health screening in order to avoid receiving “bad news.”

Actively failing to obtain knowledge is not the only way people practice information avoidance, however. The CMU researchers said that folks have come up with several strategies that they use to keep from hearing unpleasant things, including selectively playing attention only to things that affirm what they believe and forgetting any information that they would rather not be true.

Selectively consuming information can be harmful to society

In a statement, Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor, said that “the standard account of information in economics is that people should seek out information that will aid in decision-making, should never actively avoid information, and should dispassionately update their views when they encounter new valid information.”

However, he added, “people often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive. Bad teachers, for example, could benefit from feedback from students, but are much less likely to pore over teaching ratings than skilled teachers.”

When people are unable to completely ignore the information they are exposed to, the authors explained, they frequently choose to selectively interpret it, treating questionable evidence as a given fact if it confirms something that they choose to believe – for instance, the argument that autism is caused by vaccines, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support such claims.

Similarly, tested and verified facts are often discounted if it runs counter to what a person wants to believe on a subject – something which is often the case among climate change deniers. Such information avoidance can be harmful, the authors said, when a person ignores an opportunity to treat a serious disease early, or fails to seize an investment opportunity.

“An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us,” added Hagmann, a doctoral student in the CMU Department of Social and Decision Sciences. “If we want to reduce political polarization, 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.”

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