The Basic Idea
“Hey Siri, what’s the weather like in New York City?” While we often take things like Siri and Google for granted, it is important to take a step back and think about how we have more accessibility to information now than at any time in human history. Why, then, do people go out of their way to avoid news or data that is potentially unsettling, or that conflicts with one’s own belief system when it is freely available at the touch of a button? This act of circumvention is called information avoidance, defined as intentionally avoiding or delaying information that is freely accessible but potentially undesirable.1 While it can sometimes be carried out for strategic reasons, it is usually done as a means to prevent the negative psychological consequences of knowing the information.
An example of this is an investor who avoids checking her stocks after a significant dip in the market. Her accounts are freely and easily accessible to her, however it is likely that what she would find in her account would make her feel distressed or worried. She, therefore, would rather continue on with her day without that additional drag on her emotions, and will check her stocks again once the market recovers.
Theory, meet practice
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Information avoidance: The act of avoiding information, either passively or actively, with the fear that it could threaten one’s ideas or beliefs. It can be active (asking someone not to tell you something), or passive (failing to ask someone a question that would uncover this information).2
Selective exposure theory: The tendency to avoid contradictory information while seeking for and collecting information that reinforces one’s own beliefs.
Ostrich effect: When one avoids negative information that could be potentially unpleasant or unsettling.
In-group bias: Also called in-group favoritism, the habit of being biased towards people in one’s own group, and biased against those who are out of your group.
In 1960, a Columbia University researcher by the name of Joseph Klapper wrote a book titled The Effects of Mass Communication. It was the first to assert the existence of selective exposure theory – defined as the penchant for gathering information aligned to our beliefs rather than information that’s conflicted with it.2 His research further purported that individuals gravitate towards media that bolster their beliefs, and therefore avoid information that threatens it. Klapper’s work was the foundation that later researchers built upon to identify information avoidance.
Information avoidance has been seen and recognized ever since we started paying attention to each other’s’ behavior, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers began to empirically document it and its range of consequences. In 1985, a group of about 2,000 men were tested for the HIV virus, however only 60% of those men took the necessary steps to find out the results of the test a few days later. For those who did not take these steps to find their results, the most important factor in this decision was a fear of the psychological impact that a positive result would have.3 While this paper focused mostly on how confidentiality and psychological support affected the success of voluntary screening programs, these behavioral results from this paper and similar papers from the HIV epidemic prompted further research into why people avoid information when it’s freely available.
Karlsson et al. built upon these findings and coined the term “the ostrich effect” in their 2009 paper. The ostrich effect describes how people tend to avoid negative information. Instead of addressing the negative information head-on, we often metaphorically bury our heads in the sand like an ostrich.4 This effect, while initially investigated by this team in the field of finance, can occur in any setting in which individuals are emotionally invested in information but also have the power to shield themselves from it.
In 2010, Sweeny et al. first defined “information avoidance” as we use it today and thoroughly documented it in a scientific setting.5 Since then, the notion of information avoidance has been developed by subsequent researchers seeking to study it in a multitude of topics and settings. This includes a literature review published as recently as 2017 by Russell Golman and his team.6 Because of the salience of this topic, the timely review helped launch the term into mainstream media and blogs. Today, the term and the psychological researchers who study it are commonly referenced by newspapers with massive readership like the New York Times, and doing this has helped provide a framework for readers to understand the behavior that drives what they’re seeing in the news.
Kate Sweeny is notably the first to formally define the term “information avoidance,” and her 2010 paper has driven continued interest in the topic by the likes of Drs. Golman and Loewenstein. Her research has won her multiple awards, and she currently works as a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
Applying his interests in mathematics, psychology and economics, Russell Golman has been at the forefront of behavioral science throughout his career. His papers, including his 2017 review of Information Avoidance, have been widely cited and positively regarded.
George Loewenstein is a co-author of Golman’s influential 2017 review; he also helped coin the term “the ostrich effect” in 2006. He has had a significant influence in the field of behavioral economics (a field of which he is a founder), and has continued to push the boundaries throughout his decades-long career.
There are a few theories as to why information avoidance occurs, as proposed by Sweeny et al. (2010). People may avoid new information as it can alter how they:
- Think. New information can demand a change in beliefs, and people generally try to find information that confirms what we think rather than disproves it (i.e. selective exposure). Avoiding information that challenges your ways of thinking only keeps you isolated, and makes it more difficult to learn from others who disagree.
- Behave. Finding out information that you would’ve otherwise wished to avoid might require a change in action. For example, upon learning that up to 52% of sea turtles worldwide have consumed plastic debris,7 you may feel pressure to start using reusable bags at the grocery store rather than plastic ones. If you were to avoid finding this out about sea turtles, plastic consumption could go up, and the world could risk even greater rates of pollution.
- Feel. Information may spur unpleasant emotions, or at least diminish positive ones. For example, many papers have documented that people avoid finding out test results so they can evade these negative emotions. Further, studies have found that people go so far as to avoid doctor checkups in an attempt to sidestep these troublesome feelings.9 This unnecessarily puts one’s own life at risk.
In the last few years, we have seen information avoidance play out on the global stage, most notably since the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, individuals who believe that vaccines are detrimental will avoid watching press conferences, reading news, and coming across reputable data that suggests otherwise. Moreover, they will pick and choose news sources that only support their beliefs. As David Hagman, a co-author of Golman et al. (2017), puts it, “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.”9 Information avoidance has allowed people to create their own realities, and the ramifications of this have only increased as people’s realities become more and more divergent from that which is real.
With something as complex as decision-making and information processing, it’s not surprising that the controversies are equally as complex. To begin with, the entire idea of information avoidance goes against the typical view of decision-making according to economics, which states that people should actively want to find information that will help them make decisions, that they should never avoid information, and that once they stumble upon new information that conflicts with their views, they will calmly and rationally update their beliefs.3
Additionally, given that there is a great deal of research avenues that lead to information avoidance (i.e. studies in neuroscience, economics, finance, etc.), the literature is still disjointed, and there are significant steps that need to be taken to organize it all before more cohesive answers can be derived.
As information avoidance wasn’t established as a psychological phenomenon until 2010, there are still significant gaps in the research. For example, what does the role of self-control play in avoiding information, especially if one is particularly curious? How would the social aspect change avoidance, i.e. if someone else is in the same room, would information avoidance increase? Also, the differences between temporary and permanent information avoidance – and the ramifications of both – need to be parsed out. Finally, further research needs to be done to better understand passive versus active information avoidance and the ease with which people employ either type. Before any of these questions are answered, we still need to understand how common information avoidance actually is and create boundaries to determine when it’s actually harmful.
Anti-vaccination movements during the pandemic
While the efficacy of vaccinations has received uniform support from the scientific community, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals have taken to Facebook to find support in their defiance. Social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, and 4chan have provided safe spaces for these people, who have created their own echo chamber of information, preventing them from having to come across information that might dispute their claims. Some of these Facebook groups have more than 9,000 members and see hundreds of posts a day. While messages about vaccinations have been plastered everywhere from TV to ads to billboards, the lengths that these individuals will go to avoid information has had costly consequences, including having a hand in creating multiple waves of COVID-19 positivity and death rates. An epidemiology professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Public Health, Brian Labus, Ph.D., says that “the unvaccinated people are the ones keeping this pandemic going.”10
Political Polarization in the United States
The gap between the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States (the two main political parties), has grown dramatically over the last few decades. The share of individuals who have overlapping beliefs from an opposing party has declined, and consequently, it can be difficult for people from either party to even have conversations with an opponent. Part of the reason for this is that once we’re in a group, we tend to be distrustful of the opposing group (this is called in-group bias), and therefore avoid news or data that the opposing group supports. Moreover, people often change their political views to match their party’s, and it’s evident that information avoidance has played a role in this changing dynamic.11 Perhaps if individuals embraced rather than avoided trustworthy information from the opposing side, this gap could be reduced and further progress could be made for the betterment of everyone.
Related TDL Articles
This article provides additional reasons as to why we avoid negative information and elaborates on the role that conflicts in our beliefs and attitudes play in our decision-making process.
Just as we have an overwhelming amount of information available at our fingertips, we also have an overwhelming number of choices to make every day. In this article, you will learn about the science behind feeling overwhelmed, specifically as it relates to green energy providers.
Here you can read more about how our basis of knowledge works, and how to be open-minded on a new topic before forming a strong opinion on it.
- Howell, J. L., & Shepperd, J. A. (2016). Establishing an information avoidance scale. Psychological Assessment, 28(12), 1695–1708. https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000315
- Klapper, J. (1960). The Effects of Mass Communication (2014/08/01 ed.). Free Press; Cambridge Core. https://www.cambridge.org/core/article/effects-of-mass-communication-by-joseph-t-klapper-glencoe-the-free-press-1960-pp-xviii-302-500/9F232F958E7ABCC269607B407EF1D742
- Lyter, D. W., Valdiserri, R. O., Kingsley, L. A., Amoroso, W. P., & Rinaldo, C. R. (1987). The HIV antibody test: Why gay and bisexual men want or do not want to know their results. Public Health Reports, 102(5), 468–474.
- Karlsson, N., Loewenstein, G., & Seppi, D. (2009). The ostrich effect: Selective attention to information. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 38(2), 95–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11166-009-9060-6
- Sweeny, K., Melnyk, D., Miller, W., & Shepperd, J. A. (2010). Information Avoidance: Who, What, When, and Why. Review of General Psychology, 14(4), 340–353. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021288
- Golman, R., Hagmann, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2017). Information Avoidance. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(1), 96–135. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.20151245
- Fatal attraction: Turtles and plastic. (2018, May 23). UNEP. http://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/fatal-attraction-turtles-and-plastic
- Persoskie, A., Ferrer, R. A., & Klein, W. M. P. (2014). Association of cancer worry and perceived risk with doctor avoidance: An analysis of information avoidance in a nationally representative US sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 37(5), 977–987.
- Rea, S. (2017, March 13). Information Avoidance: How People Select Their Own Reality – News – Carnegie Mellon University. http://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2017/march/information-avoidance.html
- Silverstein, J. (2021, July 19). Anti-Vaxxers Could Be Helping Create Deadlier Versions of Covid. Men’s Health. https://www.menshealth.com/health/a37069291/anti-vax-spreads-variants/
- Layman, G. C., Carsey, T. M., & Horowitz, J. M. (2006). Party Polarization in American Politics: Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences. Annual Review of Political Science, 9(1), 83–110. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.polisci.9.070204.105138