People avoid information when it might hurt their self-image. But when it comes to really consequential things, we tend to want to know so that we can prepare. There’s a tipping point, but we don’t know exactly where it is, says Emily Ho in this interview conducted by Thomas Stackpole for the Harvard Business Review.
Emily Ho of Northwestern University and two co-researchers asked more than 2,300 survey participants whether they would like to get various kinds of information that could be useful to them, including how their retirement accounts stacked up against their peers’, what listeners thought of a speech they’d recently given, and how co-workers rated their strengths and weaknesses. The team found that the respondents opted out 32% of the time, on average. The conclusion: We actively avoid information that can help us.
Professor Ho, defend your research.
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Ho: The conventional wisdom is that people should be eager to get information that can benefit them. That’s the idea behind marketing and public health messaging. But across several scenarios we saw that from 15% to more than 50% of people declined the information we were offering. This is the first study to examine how prevalent this phenomenon is in many contexts. We’ve shown that this is a serious issue. It’s not just one or two people keeping their heads in the sand.
HBR: Exactly what types of information are we talking about?
Ho: My coauthors — David Hagmann of Harvard University and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University — and I chose three domains: health, finances, and interpersonal issues. We asked whether people wanted to know how long they’d live, how much time they spent slacking off at work, how their retirement savings compared with others’, feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, and more. We wanted to run a big, comprehensive survey about the decisions that people are grappling with every day. Most people go to the doctor. Everyone thinks about money. We wanted to better understand the situations in which people want information and those in which they really shy away from it.
HBR: So your findings are more about the amount and type of information that people avoid than about the number and type of people who avoid information?
Ho: Right. Information avoidance is pervasive, but it also seems to depend on context. Some of the same people who didn’t want to know their life expectancy did want to know how their retirement portfolio was doing, and vice versa.
HBR: In which situations were people most likely to decline info that could help them?
Ho: One factor that may have been at play was perceived actionability. In earlier research we found that if people felt they wouldn’t be able to act on the information being offered, they were less likely to want it. However, technically, any piece of information could be useful, and you can’t know whether it is if you immediately shut it out. A lot of people think, “Oh, if I get a bad diagnosis, I can’t do anything about it.” They’d rather not know. And maybe you can’t do anything about being sick. But with a health diagnosis you can do something about future life planning.
HBR: And there was no guarantee that this information would be bad — there was just that possibility, right?
Ho: That’s right. The outcome was ambiguous and basically up to the person’s interpretation. That way the results weren’t skewed by people’s loss aversion. But we did find that people who were more accepting of risk were more likely to obtain information, as were those who didn’t focus on the present far more than on the future.
HBR: Were you able to discern anything else about who was more likely to ask for information and who was likely to avoid it?
Ho: Surprisingly, we found very few demographic differences. In our last study we found that men were slightly more information seeking than women, but it was a very small correlation. Personality does seem to play a role, though. We found that people who were more curious and more receptive to opposing views tended to want information more frequently. So did people who had a higher need for intellectual engagement. But, again, these relationships were small, which suggests that information avoidance is not just a part of any of those traits. It’s still its own construct.
HBR: You surveyed only Americans for this. Do you think you’d generate the same findings in other countries and cultures?
Ho: I’d say that information avoidance is probably generalisable — I don’t think there’s anything uniquely American about those preferences. It’s possible that you’d find a difference between individualistic cultures and collectivist ones, though. In the latter, if people felt that obtaining information would also help others around them, they might be more inclined to get it.
HBR: What advice do you have for managers reading this and realising that their employees are probably avoiding useful information a lot of the time?
Ho: First, recognise that wilful ignorance is all around, including in you. For example, when we asked the question about time spent slacking off at work, scrolling through Facebook or whatever, two out of five — 40% of people — didn’t want to know about it. One in five didn’t want to know how their co-workers would rate their strengths and weaknesses. That’s problematic! Especially for firms that rely on teamwork. One question for leaders is, How useful are these 360-degree assessments if 20% of your direct reports won’t read them? Just because you have certain feedback mechanisms in place, that doesn’t mean the job is done. You might want to think about other ways of communicating constructive criticism.
HBR: Were there areas where most people did want information at work?
Ho: We looked at automation by asking, “Do you want to know how replaceable you are?” Only 15% of people said they didn’t. What I take from that is, people avoid information when it might hurt their self-image: I don’t want to know how much time I’m wasting at work or what my colleagues really think of me. But when it comes to really consequential things, such as how likely they are to lose their jobs in the next several years, people tend to want to know so that they can prepare. There’s a tipping point, but we don’t know exactly where it is.
HBR: Doesn’t it sometimes make sense to avoid information that could be beneficial but will make you feel bad — because the help gets outweighed by the hurt?
Ho: That’s what academics call subjective well-being — which is affected by your “hedonic cost,” or the degree to which knowing information makes something less pleasurable. Let’s put a very concrete number on it: Will finding out that you’re underpaid weigh on your mind so much or be so unpleasant that you’d be willing to forgo the $800 a month that you might have secured by using that information to negotiate a better salary or get a different job? Most people probably aren’t thinking about it like that, but maybe they should be.
HBR: Has knowing all this changed the way you collect information?
Ho: It definitely made me more aware of when I was reflexively not reading something because I wanted to protect my beliefs or my ego. It made me realise that there’s a trade-off between doing that and maybe making a better decision later on.
Here’s an example from my own work: I write a lot, but for a long time I resisted word counters. I just didn’t want an index of what I’d done every day. I realised that I was afraid of the data staring back at me and telling me I should write more. So I thought, “Well, if that’s the only thing holding me back and having the information could help me write 500 extra words a day, I should stop avoiding it.” Information is freedom!
(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group
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