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Avoiding Inconvenient Truths When We Just Don’t Want to Know

Avoiding Inconvenient Truths When We Just Don’t Want to Know

New data shows we avoid facts that conflict with our feelings

Jane Adams Ph.D.
Psychology Today
Mar 13, 2018

When information is easily accessed and costs us nothing, why do we ignore it? New data[1] from a study of intuitive-deliberative conflict – referred to more colloquially as the head vs. heart debate – identifies this conflict as the key driver of information avoidance; in other words, we act in ways that make it easier to protect our intuitive preference by ignoring logic, reason or data that might influence us to think or act differently. Our instincts may be right or wrong in terms of what’s best for us, but often they guide us to what sometimes seems like willful ignorance. And information avoidance is greater before we make a decision – when the information is most relevant – than afterward, when it doesn’t matter.

Think of the last time you were tempted by a Dove bar. Did you look at the ingredients on the label? Probably not, and probably intentionally. A delicious dessert figured in one of a series of experiments carried out with over 750 adults by researchers from Cornell University and the University of Chicago; as predicted, participants ignored the calorie count, which was clearly displayed. Another experiment tested whether people would avoid learning more about a boring task that might earn them some compensation in order to do something more enjoyable; again, the research proved that they would tune out the information. In a different exercise, researchers found that not only is avoidance more common when an intuitive preference is very strong, but it’s strongest just before the preference is enacted and the decision made. The study explains a lot about why facts don’t matter as much as feelings do, and why it’s so difficult to change people’s minds with information that contradicts what their gut is telling them either isn’t true or doesn’t matter.

The study concluded that people avoid information that could encourage them to reconsider their intuitive preference more thoughtfully; they do this in order to protect their “gut” feelings, thus making it easier to act in accordance with them. In other words, when the heart wants what the heart wants, it’s difficult to persuade it to pay attention to information about why it shouldn’t act on its preferences. We want information that confirms our feelings, not conflicts with them.

Previous research has shown that people avoid certain types of information for different reasons. Whether it’s not wanting to know facts about her relationship that might precipitate a break-up, or medical data that could cause him to change his behavior, the motivation for information avoidance is to avoid actually making a decision. People avoid information that would challenge an important world view, or because they anticipate that it will cause painful feelings like guilt or other negative emotions. What’s different and valuable about the current research from previous studies in motivations for information avoidance, which is thoroughly surveyed in Woolley’s and Risen’s work, is that it required people to make decisions regardless of whether or not they avoided information; they had to actively choose either an informed or uninformed decision.

What’s most interesting about this research is how applicable it is in a society where information is so omnipresent that it takes effort to decide what to screen out or ignore, let alone take in. Winning politicians are good at engaging voters’ instincts, while those whose appeal is to reason and logic often fail to engage their attention. And what this important data confirms is what politics makes clear at this point in time: that people typically think with their beliefs and values rather than about them, and that for all our human powers of reason, intellect and logic, we often pay more attention to our feelings.


[1] Woolley, Kaitlin, Risen, Jane L. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, vol. 114(2) Feb. 2018