Information Aversion

22 August, 2014


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.

To Really Judge Good Music, Turn Off the Sound

21 August, 2013

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chia-Jung Tsay showed musicians clips from classical music competitions. She asked them to guess the winners. Different musicians were given different kinds of clips: audio recordings… videos with sound… and videos with no sound!

They did best when they saw videos with no sound.

It’s not that the winners were good-looking. It’s that they moved in expressive ways.

This reminds me of how people are willing to pay more for wines whose names are hard to pronounce… or how you can predict who will win an election by watching videos of the candidates—with the sound off.

I think there’s something important about these results. They’re a bit depressing: if our cognitive apparatus is so deeply flawed, maybe we’re doomed. But maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe we just tend to define the point of various activities too narrowly!

We go to a concert, not just to listen to music, but to watch the performer. We drink a wine, not just to taste it in our mouth, but to bask in the sense of being sophisticated. We judge a candidate, not just by what they say, but by how they say it.

You can see the paper here:

• Chia-Jung Tsay, Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 19 August 2013.

You can hear (or see) a nice summary and discussion here:

• Shankar Vedantam, How to win that music competition? Send a video, National Public Radio, 20 August 2013.