We all avoid things we don’t want to know — the classic example is not getting on the scale even though you’re trying to lose weight because you’re afraid of the number you’ll see. It can feel better not to know certain types of information than to receive unpleasant information, or information that might force us to significantly reassess things. A new review paper lays out all the ways in which we avoid upsetting or unwanted information, and how doing so can hurt and, occasionally, help us.

There are many ways we can avoid information, and some of them are pretty elaborate, the authors say. We can physically avoid it by not picking up a newspaper or turning on the news, for example. We can avoid information by purposefully not paying attention to it, even when it's right at hand — we do this with unwanted messages from spouses, parents and friends.

“[P]eople often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive.”

To reduce the jarring effect of certain information we may re-interpret it based on our own underlying beliefs or desires, rather than the actual content of the information, perhaps deciding that our bathroom scale is inaccurate. Or we can choose to forget information that we don’t like, putting it out of our mind.

The tendency to avoid unwanted information can obviously hurt us — as in the case of dieting, where knowing the (unpleasant) number could prompt us to make different and hopefully better decisions moving forward that will prevent further weight gain. But it goes further than that: Not being willing to pay attention to feedback — such as on our performance in a job or at school — can become a big obstacle to improving.

“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,” said study author, George Loewenstein, who is considered one of the co-founders of the field of behavioral economics. “But 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.”

Avoiding information also affects how we relate to and learn from one another. Not absorbing the unpleasant feedback a friend or family member is giving you might make you less likely to broaden or adjust your viewpoint. And it goes even deeper: Policy makers who avoid fact-based information could create policies that are fundamentally flawed, and put people’s health or the environment at serious risk.

The tendency to avoid unwanted information can obviously hurt us. But it goes further than that: it can be an obstacle to improving in important ways.

Avoiding information does have benefits, the Carnegie Mellon University researchers point out. That's why we are often quick to fall back on it. If the information truly can’t benefit us, for example, or if it may harm us, or backfire, leading us to bad decisions, it may be better not to spend much time on it, leaving room to pay attention to more useful information. The trick is to determine whether the harm we perceive that certain news or information presents is legitimate, or is simply threatening to our preconceived ideas.

“People do it for a reason,” said researcher Russell Golman. “Those who do not take a genetic test can enjoy their life until their illness can't be ignored, an inflated sense of our own abilities can help us to pursue big and worthwhile goals, and not looking at our financial investments when markets are down may keep us from selling in a panic.”

Presentation Matters
Finally, how challenging, unwanted information is presented can make confronting it easier. “An implication of information avoidance is that we do not engage effectively with those who disagree with us,” David Hagmann, a study coauthor and PhD student. “Bombarding people with information that challenges their cherished beliefs — the usual strategy that people employ in attempts at persuasion — is more likely to engender defensive avoidance than receptive processing.”

In other words, dinner table debates are not the best forum for changing hearts and minds. “If we want to reduce political polarization,” said Hagmann, “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.”

Figuring out the best strategy to share information that may be met with resistance is an important piece of the puzzle. Start by adjusting your own attitudes toward unpleasant information. This may help you figure out better routes to deliver unwanted information to others. After all, if our goal is to share information, we need to try to do it so that it is most likely to reach others rather than scare them or make them feel uncomfortable.

The review is published in the Journal of Economic Literature.