Information Aversion


Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it. It’s called information aversion.

Here’s a new experiment on information aversion:

In order to gauge how information aversion affects health care, one group of researchers decided to look at how college students react to being tested for a sexually transmitted disease.

That’s a subject a lot of students worry about, according to Josh Tasoff, an economist at Claremont Graduate University who led the study along with Ananda Ganguly, an associate professor of accounting at Claremont McKenna College.

The students were told they could get tested for the herpes simplex virus. It’s a common disease that spreads via contact. And it has two forms: HSV1 and HSV2.

The type 1 herpes virus produces cold sores. It’s unpleasant, but not as unpleasant as type 2, which targets the genitals. Ganguly says the college students were given information — graphic information — that made it clear which kind of HSV was worse.

“There were pictures of male and female genitalia with HSV2, guaranteed to kind of make them really not want to have the disease,” Ganguly says.

Once the students understood what herpes does, they were told a blood test could find out if they had either form of the virus.

Now, in previous studies on information aversion it wasn’t always clear why people declined information. So Tasoff and Ganguly designed the experiment to eliminate every extraneous reason someone might decline to get information.

First, they wanted to make sure that students weren’t declining the test because they didn’t want to have their blood drawn. Ganguly came up with a way to fix that: All of the students would have to get their blood drawn. If a student chose not to get tested, “we would draw 10 cc of their blood and in front of them have them pour it down the sink,” Ganguly says.

The researchers also assured the students that if they elected to get the blood tested for HSV1 and HSV2, they would receive the results confidentially.

And to make triply sure that volunteers who said they didn’t want the test were declining it to avoid the information, the researchers added one final catch. Those who didn’t want to know if they had a sexually transmitted disease had to pay $10 to not have their blood tested.

So what did the students choose? Quite a few declined a test.

And while only 5 percent avoided the HSV1 test, three times as many avoided testing for the nastier form of herpes.

For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.

Let’s try extrapolating from this. Global warming is pretty scary. What would people do to avoid learning more about it? You can’t exactly pay scientists to not tell you about it. But you can do lots of other things: not listen to them, pay people to contradict what they’re saying, and so on. And guess what? People do all these things.

So, don’t expect that scaring people about global warming will make them take action. If a problem seems scary and hard to solve, many people will just avoid thinking about it.

Maybe a better approach is to tell people things they can do about global warming. Even if these things aren’t big enough to solve the problem, they can keep people engaged.

There’s a tricky issue here. I don’t want people to think turning off the lights when they leave the room is enough to stop global warming. That’s a dangerous form of complacency. But it’s even worse if they decide global warming is such a big problem that there’s no point in doing anything about it.

There are also lots of subtleties worth exploring in further studies. What, exactly, are the situations where people seek to avoid unpleasant information? What are the situations where they will accept it? This is something we need to know.

The quote is from here:

• Shankar Vedantham, Why we think ignorance Is bliss, even when It hurts our health, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 28 July 2014.

Here’s the actual study:

• Ananda Ganguly and Joshua Tasoff, Fantasy and dread: the demand for information and the consumption utility of the future.

Abstract. Understanding the properties of intrinsic information preference is important for predicting behavior in many domains including finance and health. We present evidence that intrinsic demand for information about the future is increasing in expected future consumption utility. In the first experiment subjects may resolve a lottery now or later. The information is useless for decision making but the larger the reward, the more likely subjects are to pay to resolve the lottery early. In the second experiment subjects may pay to avoid being tested for HSV-1 and the more highly feared HSV-2. Subjects are three times more likely to avoid testing for HSV-2, suggesting that more aversive outcomes lead to more information avoidance. We also find that intrinsic information demand is negatively correlated with positive affect and ambiguity aversion.

Here’s an attempt by economists to explain information aversion:

• Marianne Andries and Valentin Haddad, Information aversion, 27 February 2014.

Abstract. We propose a theory of inattention solely based on preferences, absent any cognitive limitations and external costs of acquiring information. Under disappointment aversion, information decisions and risk attitude are intertwined, and agents are intrinsically information averse. We illustrate this link between attitude towards risk and information in a standard portfolio problem, in which agents balance the costs, endogenous in our framework, and benefits of information. We show agents never choose to receive information continuously in a diffusive environment: they optimally acquire information at infrequent intervals only. We highlight a novel channel through which the optimal frequency of information acquisition decreases when risk increases, consistent with empirical evidence. Our framework accommodates a broad range of applications, suggesting our approach can explain many observed features of decision under uncertainty.

The photo, probably fake, is from here.

24 Responses to Information Aversion

  1. John Baez says:

    On Google+, David Hallowell wrote:

    Yeah, today’s publicizing about the Atlantic heatsink is really disconcerting. We are warming in the middle of a cooling cycle. Professor Baez, I’m curious, with the complexity of international politics and the priority nations place on developing their economies, as well as the oil, coal, and auto lobbies in the US, aside from worldwide coordinated civil disobedience, how do we move these leviathans? What does the ordinary citizen who does care do, besides turning the lights off or naively shelling out an extra $4k for a hybrid auto, like we did, only to find that the overall carbon impact isn’t better with the battery disposal? The problem strikes me as an intractable surd, even from an informed position. Perhaps if a clear, coordinated action plan existed that didn’t rely on politicians on the take to get things going, then maybe there would be more movement towards a solution? The above argument (which I’m sympathetic to) strikes me like Socrates’ assertion that ignorance is the root of all evil, which I doubt you take to be the case. What is the responsibility of someone who is informed and cares?

    Kevin Clift wrote:

    According to David MacKay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, there are four simple things that we as individuals can easily do to start with: I posted about his 2050 DIY policy calculator here:

    David wrote:

    I like this, but it strikes me as sophisticated “turning off the lights.” Seems to me the severity of the problem warrants a severe solution, major economic and infrastructure changes, yesterday.

    Mickey Wendwossen wrote:

    For me the take away message is that we have a somewhat natural tendency to respond well to a positive, empowering approach compared to an approach that heavily emphasizes on the magnitude of a problem. We seem to hate positions where we feel powerless and clueless. An evolutionary trait perhaps, that can explain far more than our gridlock in climate change. So may be emphasizing on how we have already done 1000 years worth of irreversible damage on the climate is probably not that productive interms of real, measurable progress. We need to tweak the rhetoric to make it more compatible to our human condition. We like positive and empowering statements and shy away (or worse give them imaginary answers) to things that baffle our mind and leave us powerless.

    David wrote:

    Hmmm… On this one I side with Dan Kahan’s work on motivated reasoning. He’s not saying quite the same thing, but he does point out that the way you phrase your information does matter for the cognitive road your interlocutor will travel down.

    I wrote:

    there are actually many useful things that people can do and are doing about global warming. The details depend on your skills and where you live. I see you’re in Goleta doing doctoral research in education and cognitive science. So, some possible options:

    1) Get involved with the Goleta Green Building program:

    2) Talk to Cindy Moore, who is the Sustainability Coordinator of Goleta, and ask her what you just asked me! She’ll know more about opportunities and problems in your area. She’s

    3) Using your professional skills, study how people react to information about global warming: what kinds of information, presented in which ways, tends to empower them to take action? What kinds tend to discourage them or make them tune out?

    4) Design ways to educate kids about ecology and energy issues.

    5) Find out: how is this education being done in Goleta? How could it be improved? Do they need volunteer speakers?

    6) Learn about California’s cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and how they’re teaming up with other states and also provinces in Canada. Learn how China is copying this program. Think of ways you can get involved, maybe speeding up adoption of similar programs elsewhere, maybe tackling problems with California’s program:

    There must be lots of cognitive/educational aspects.

    4 years ago I changed my career direction to focus more on global warming. I’m turning my math and physics skills toward ‘network theory’ (abstract stuff for understanding complex systems like ecosystems and power grids) and El Niño prediction (since it’s a concrete project related to global warming that seems like a good way to engage with climate science). I’m talking about this stuff in my undergrad classes, and I’m getting my grad students to work on it. I’m also giving talks about this stuff and blogging about it.

    It’s a small step, in a way. I don’t want to throw out my whole skill set and start over. But I feel it’s my duty to do at least this much. I think we can all do things like this, with the details varying immensely from person to person.

    David wrote:

    Nice! This is great. Last summer I taught a LEGO engineering camp called “Green Engineering.” Over the course of a week we built 10 projects, including an aquaduct with a working water generator, and a LEGO city with a monorail, powered by a real solar array that we wired to a grid we created. I didn’t really think of that as activism, but in retrospect, it really opened the children’s minds to alternative possibilities for human living. It was a great experience for the students and for me.

  2. The two major concerns are fossil fuel depletion and GHG -induced climate change. They both have the same mitigation objective — to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in the long run. The policy approach that I have heard advocated is to stress mitigation for climate change and to clam up on peak oil. This is considered to have less of a fear factor, especially on economic markets.

    It is also more encouraging WRT human nature to focus on climate change, as there is always the hope that we can do something to control it. Contrast this to crude oil depletion, which is really about exposing a complete dead end. Dead ends are like death — people do not like to talk about it. That is information aversion to the extreme.

    • John Baez says:

      WebHubTel wrote:

      Dead ends are like death — people do not like to talk about it. That is information aversion to the extreme.

      Indeed, I wrote this post in part because I’ve been thinking about terror management theory: roughly, the idea that a lot of human behavior that’s otherwise rather hard to explain can be understood as a way of managing the fear of death. I think it’s a very interesting theory that deserves a lot of empirical study. In this domain it’s easy to make up ideas that sound appealing and get carried away with them. But luckily there have been some experiments, and eventually we might sort out the relation between ‘terror management’ and other forms of information aversion. That might be tremendously helpful, since it’s dangerous to be running around driven by emotions we barely understand.

  3. ar18 says:

    You are right, many people are aversive to information. Let’s talk about some of that information aversion in regards to Global Climate Warming/Change…

    Why are so many people aversive to the fact that every singe climate model failed to predict or explain the current 16 year hiatus in Global Warming?

    Why are so many people aversive to the fact that Global Warming isn’t considered global anymore, and probably never has been global?

    Why are so many people aversive to the fact that scientists still can’t make up their minds if the climate is going to get warmer or cooler??

    And let’s not forget how many people are aversive to the fact of the also apocalyptic Global Climate Cooling scare of the 1970’s, which is coincidentally only a little older than the 16-year old Global Warming hiatus.

    An average global temp change of 1.2°F change in the last 100 years is nothing. If someone changed the temp of your room or refrigerator, would you even notice or would there be a drastic “climate change” to accompany it?

    To put this in perspective, 100 years ago we saw the end of the Little Ice Age. Before the Little Ice Age was the Medieval Warming Period or…get this…it was also called the Medieval Climate *OPTIMUM*…and we are still one degree short of being at the peak of the Medieval Climate *OPTIMUM*. Are you seeing this or are you aversive to information too, because It implies are current climate is suboptimal and not “on the brink of a worldwide disaster”.

    • John Baez says:

      None of this is very relevant to the topic of the post, and you’re doing a Gish Gallop, mentioning so many issues that it would take hours to address them all adequately… so I’ll just pick this ‘global cooling’ business.

      Quoting the Wikipedia article on global cooling:

      In the 1970s, there was increasing awareness that estimates of global temperatures showed cooling since 1945, as well as the possibility of large scale warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases. Of those scientific papers considering climate trends over the 21st century, less than 10% inclined towards future cooling, while most papers predicted future warming [2]. The general public had little awareness of carbon dioxide’s effects on climate, but Science News in May 1959 forecast a 25% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the 150 years from 1850 to 2000, with a consequent warming trend [3]. The actual increase in this period was 29%. Paul R. Ehrlich mentioned climate change from greenhouse gases in 1968 [4]. By the time the idea of global cooling reached the public press in the mid-1970s temperatures had stopped falling, and there was concern in the climatological community about carbon dioxide’s warming effects [5]. In response to such reports, the World Meteorological Organization issued a warning in June 1976 that a very significant warming of global climate was probable [6].

      The whole article is very interesting.

      The amusing part is that none of this has much to do with whether global warming is actually occurring. If you really want to understand whether and how it’s occurring, you should do scientific research, which includes reading the latest, best scientific literature. Finding an old Newsweek about some scientists who thought the Earth was cooling—what’s that supposed to prove? Until recently Hawking publicly doubted the existence of the Higgs boson. Does that prove the Higgs doesn’t exist?

      I think the psychology of information aversion actually explains quite well why some people harp on side-issues like this.

      • ar18 says:

        Thank you for proving my point! You are dismissing the Newsweek article having any facts, just because Newsweek wrote it? That’s a logical fallacy if I ever saw one. Even if Playboy wrote that article, it would still be a fact whether you like Playboy or not. The fact is, Global Cooling was all the rage in the 1970’s, just like Global Warming is all the rage today. And yes, NASA was doing the pushing then like they are today, as well as our government and various medias, like Newsweek. And what about the other articles? You evaded and dismissed them too. Another fact that you seemed to overlook is those other three articles are all already the latest science on the subject matter. The purpose of the articles isn’t so people have something to explain away or dismiss out-of-hand or ignore because they are too overwhelming to study, but to learn from them. I know for a fact you will never ever research those articles for any facts. You have already made up your mind they aren’t worth your time or trouble. That is the mark of a blind faith believer. You have demonstrated a very evasive and aversive response to what should the beginning of a scientific and logical discussion. So with all that in mind, it seems I hit the nail right on the head with my comment and I was right on track with information aversive response of people. So like I said, thank you for proving my point!

      • John Baez says:

        ar18 wrote:

        You are dismissing the Newsweek article having any facts, just because Newsweek wrote it?


        The fact is, Global Cooling was all the rage in the 1970’s, just like Global Warming is all the rage today.

        I guess you didn’t read the Wikipedia article I cited, which demolishes this myth. You might also try this:

        • Thomas Peterson, William Connolley and John Fleck, The myth of the 1970s global cooling consensus, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, September 2008.

        On the off chance you’re suffering from a bit of information aversity yourself, I’ll quote some:

        Despite active efforts to answer these questions, the following pervasive myth arose: there was a consensus among climate scientists of the 1970s that either global cooling or a full-fledged ice age was imminent (see the “Perpetuating the myth” sidebar). A review of the climate science literature from 1965 to 1979 shows this myth to be false. The myth’s basis lies in a selective misreading of the texts both by some members of the media at the time and by some observers today. In fact, emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.

        You’ll need to read the whole thing to get the detailed proof.

        As mentioned before, arguing about this myth is not very productive if you want to learn what the Earth’s temperature is actually doing. But the Wikipedia article and this Bulletin of the American Meteorologists article do give an interesting window into the history of climate science.

        And what about the other articles?

        I’ll be glad to talk about those, one at a time, after my readers have gotten a chance to make up their minds about this ‘global cooling consensus’ business. What I don’t want is a game where you toss balls in many directions at once and then complain that I don’t catch them all.

    • davetweed says:

      An average global temp change of 1.2°F change in the last 100 years is nothing. If someone changed the temp of your room or refrigerator, would you even notice or would there be a drastic “climate change” to accompany it?

      To address one of your questions: if the temperature in my refrigerator changed I would notice it because I’ve got a thermometer in there that I look at periodically. The reason I’ve got a thermometer in there was that I used to have a refrigerator where the milk went off suspiciously quickly, which made me worried about the safety of produce in there where you can’t taste differences as it becomes spoiled. A thermometer confirmed it that although cool it wasn’t quite in the “cool enough” zone.So the answer is yes I’d notice, and I did notice even without instrumentation.

      Are you claiming that you’ve had meaningful temperature fluctuations in your refrigerator that you didn’t notice? (OK, I’m partly being silly treating it like you actually wanted an answer to your rhetorical question, but there’s actually a serious point at the bottom: just because one person considers paying attention to something beneath them isn’t a cast iron guarantee that thing is irrelevant.)

      • ar18 says:

        If the temperature of your refrigerator is on the borderline of your milk spoiling or not, then you might notice the difference then, but as you demonstrated, even then it would take a long time before you noticed. Of course, your analogy is off the mark because there are no temperatures anywhere in the world that are right on the borderline of any one individual climate changing to another one, not with a mere 1.2 degree rise in temperatures like there has been in the last 100 years.

  4. Roger Witte says:

    I am the sole financial support for my wife and children and my sister was recently diagnosed with bowel cancer. My sister’s doctor recommended that her siblings get bowel cancer tests so I have made an appointment to have one. However I did consider not having one because I would be morally obliged to share the results with employers and insurers. I am still not convinced that taking an immediate loss of income now would be better for my family than dying in 10 years time. (Of course, I hope for neither). My point is that there are social consequences for having health information beyond the direct consequences of the information itself, and that these may amplify or explain any purely psychological reasons for health Information aversion.

    • John Baez says:

      Roger wrote:

      My point is that there are social consequences for having health information beyond the direct consequences of the information itself, and that these may amplify or explain any purely psychological reasons for health Information aversion.

      That’s true. The experiment I described tried to eliminate these effects by promising that any information gained would be confidential. But people might want to keep some things secret even from themselves, since nobody can count on themselves to keep a secret.

  5. andyextance says:

    Reblogged this on Simple Climate and commented:
    People will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts: is this linked to why some people reject global warming? John Baez thinks so.

  6. uknowispeaksense says:

    Reblogged this on uknowispeaksense.

  7. Simplicio says:

    I tend to think the environmental movement in general should spend a little more time plugging their past successes. Things like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts have done a huge amount to stop and reverse past damage. Ozone depletion has stopped and begun to reverse. Removing lead from gasoline has even had a measurable positive effect on crime rates and IQ of people living near busy roadways.

    Instead there’s a tendency to jump immediately to the next crisis. And I can understand why, environmentalists don’t want people to get complacent, and there are still huge problems. But I think by burying a lot of the positive news, it makes the whole project seem more hopeless then it is. Showing that past efforts have worked, on the other-hand, can do a lot to make people think future efforts can do so as well.

    • John Baez says:

      I agree! The cap-and-trade system that the US uses to limit sulfur dioxide emissions—it’s called the Acid Rain Program—is another good example. People argue about whether it’s as good as the European system, and a carbon cap-and-trade system will be harder because it’s bigger, but it’s still worth talking about it. It was sufficiently successful that most people have forgotten it exists! Now it’s in some sort of legal limbo; what will happen next? I don’t know.

  8. Katja Grace says:

    My guess is that in the herpes case, it is the strong social norm to tell future sexual partners about any sexually transmitted diseases you have that makes such information distasteful. The social norm does not extend to an obligation to find out whether you have sexually transmitted diseases, so learning whether you do have one only brings a probability of an awkward conversation in the future, with little reward. I don’t think anything similar applies to climate change straightforwardly, though it might apply to e.g. learning your carbon footprint, if you were in a social circle where others would ask you about it in the future and it would be embarrassing if too high.

  9. In the Library and Information Science field, this concept is referred to as Mooer’s Law.

  10. lee says:

    John, you should really take the opportunity to write about Game Theory in this post. Please check out this proposed reading of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Only a team of two players can play the game of perfect competition. Larger teams of players can form coalitions, which destroy opposing individuals. Two against one in a team of three. Three against one in a team of four. Four against one in a team of five. And so on. That’s why overhearing the phrase “Not a team player” behind your back in the corporate world is like a whisper in your ear from the Angel of Death.

    Psychology studies of group cognition find the most effective strategy to be– instead of form coalitions among themselves and work against outside individuals– first find out who the smartest player is, everybody else go on coffee break and let the selected player solve the problem by self.

    But none of this holds for teams of two players. Why?

    Theory of Games predicts it. Because the theorems there tell us that the team of two players lacks the capability to break itself into sub-groups. The death by coalition strategy only works in teams of more than two players.

    Nobody knows this in psychology, of course. Nonetheless, their findings about dyad problem solving in the field and in laboratories comprises experimental confirmation of the theorems about dyads found in Theory of Games. Nobody has realized this because the word “dyad,” as I remember it, is not found anywhere in the text of Theory of Games.

    Here’s the core of the strategy behind the $163bn budget of the advertising industry phrased in terms of a joke:

    “I’ve go too much on my mind to think about anything.”

    Billions of news bytes and meaningless information floods into our brains from advertising and the media content that it supports, with yearly funding in the amount of $163bn.

    Distracted from thinking by that amount of media, the populace can think only the most primitive of thoughts. And they are threatened with death. Naturally, there is fear.

    Here’s a study on the application of dyad problem solving techniques in the face of death–

    For links into some literature please Google “dyad problem solving”

  11. lee says:

    On designing technologies for the virtual and architectural classroom–

    Here are the posters I used to explain an experiment I’d been allowed previously to fund at the poster session of a meeting between psychologists and game theorists called The Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior. I had used psychology to design a situation for the Ultimatum Game, which for the first time showed that not just self-destructive rage can result from playing the game, but apparently for the first time, we also observed the giving of gifts.

    Showing more generally that a game experimentalist can employ psychological effects in the design of technology for experimental games, technology that affects the subconsciousness of players in the game.


  12. ishi says:

    I heard about this study, but have a slightly different perspective—but this is about health, rather than AGW (which i am quite familiar with).

    I don’t have health insurance, and generally have dealt with those issues on my own (i mostly get broken bones (also west nile virus, lyme disease, etc.) somewhat due to my penchant for hiking (and i make stupid choices—and i know they are but i decide to take the easy path even though i suspect its the wrong one and end up falling down a cliff), and also where i live (so i get assaulted sometimes).

    The people i have known who go to hospitals don’t get out in my experience (a small sample of course—or they go in and out and then don’t come out). So i figure why bother.

    I know alot of people in the environmental ‘community’. Its mostly flying around the world to give lectures on what you should already know.

    I did end up in one hospital for pneumonia 2 years ago (for 6 weeks too, and it was 3500$/day (i calculated it, so maybe i get a fields medal for the math) basically not because i asked but because i mentioned i wasnt feeling well to someone (a sortuh understatement) so they took me to one. (they could do ‘prevention’ and find me some sort of ‘reasonable job’ (and i can live on 15-20G$/yr and usually on less, but they’d prefer to pay me more than i earned my whole life in 6 weeks—and i have an ‘ivy league degree’ and did research in math bio too (some with someone from SFI (in fact one who wrote also on electrical networks/chemical reactions isomorphism—goes back to Katchalsky, Oster, and Kron), and help me find a job fixing up their house or in fast food or a gas station).

    War, casinos, condos, highways, sports stadiums and everything upscale seems to be the current priority. So why bother.

    If you want to study the phenomena of information aversion, one can always look at the relationship of Claremont schools to Clarement Review. Bury your head (if you have a woded knee).

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