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.