The problem with avoiding bad news

Originally posted on Cafe.com

I’m terrible at checking my bank balance. Sometimes I can leave it for weeks, months even, putting it off, telling myself I’ll check in a few days. The longer I leave it, the worse it gets. When I haven’t checked it in weeks and I know funds are getting low, the thought of logging on and seeing how little money I have until my next paycheck—or worse still, that I’m in the red—makes me tense and squirm a bit inside. I’m quite happy deluding myself, really. I don’t want to know.

We’ve all done something like this at one point or another: deliberately avoiding something we expect to bring bad news. Maybe you’ve avoided going to the doctor about some uncomfortable symptoms because you’re afraid they’re a sign of something more serious. Maybe you keep putting off serious conversations with your partner because you don’t want to find out he or she is unhappy. Or perhaps, like me, you think that if you put off weighing yourself for long enough after the Christmas holidays, those extra pounds will just magically disappear.

The psychology of avoiding bad news

In fact, there’s a pretty large body of research on this tendency, which researchers callinformation avoidance, suggesting that we’re exceptionally good at this whole “avoiding bad news” thing. 

Studies have shown people tend to avoid all kinds of information, even when doing so might ultimately be harmful. People frequently opt not to hear about their risk of contracting a specific disease, even when knowing their risk could help them to get treatment. After making a decision, people tend to be biased towards information that confirms that decision. We avoid anything that might challenge what we already believe: A huge review of research on “selective exposure” showed that people are almost two times more likely to choose to read information that fits with what they already believe than information that might challenge their beliefs. 

James Shepperd, a psychology professor from the University of Florida who studies information avoidance, suggests there are three main reasons we might choose to avoid potentially unwanted information:

1. It might suggest we change our beliefs. Realizing that something you believe is wrong—especially if it’s something that’s very important to you, or central to your identity—doesn’t feel good. Changing our minds also takes effort; it’s much easier to stick with what we already believe. Having our beliefs validated by reading things that support them is much nicer.

2. It might suggest we do something we don’t want to. Learning that your toothache requires a root canal is a hassle and expensive, not to mention painful. Staying in a state of uncertainty where the toothache could still be nothing, really, seems much more appealing.

3. It might make us feel bad. Finally, we might simply avoid information that could upset us. Stepping on the scales and realizing you’ve put on a few pounds probably won’t make you feel that good. 

Why it's (mostly) better to know the truth

It makes a lot of sense that we might avoid information for these reasons. Who wants to find out that they’re at serious risk of getting a life-threatening disease, that they made a wrong decision, or that they’ve been completely wrong about something for years? Not me, that’s for sure. None of these things sounds fun.

But this kind of thinking is often overly-focused on the short term. In the long run, if my toothache is something more serious, putting off finding that out is only going to make things worse. I’ll be in more pain, and not getting it fixed might cause further health complications. Finding out right now that I need a root canal may be immediately unpleasant, but it means I can do something to fix the problem—and I’ll be better off in the end.

If I’ve put on weight, then avoiding the scale and mirrors doesn’t make it any less true. Most of the time we’re better off if our beliefs match up to reality—because then we’re in a position to actually change things: to try and lose that extra weight, or to get the medical treatment we need.

Of course, there are some times when it might be better not to know. If there’s genuinely nothing you can do to change the situation, knowing the truth wouldn’t help you go about your life any better, and the truth is genuinely unpleasant. I’d rather not know if my ex-boyfriend from years ago cheated on me, for example—it would be unpleasant and it is unlikely to be relevant in any way to my life now. But I expect the number of real-life situations in which knowing the truth really isn’t useful in any way is actually pretty limited.

Avoiding information avoidance

It’s all very well saying it’s generally better to know the truth, but it can still be very hard to do in practice. How can you get yourself to actually check your bank balance, to step on the scale, to book a doctor's appointment? How can you avoid falling prey to information avoidance when it doesn’t help you?

Professor Shepperd and colleagues have been trying to answer just this question. They found that in one recent study, people were more willing to learn their risk of a certain disease if they first completed a “contemplation” exercise, in which they spent some time answering questions about the long-term consequences of finding out their risk. Shepperd suggests that this intervention helps reduce information avoidance by shifting people’s thinking from the automatic reaction, “But finding out I’m at high risk of a disease sounds horrible!” to reasoning more about the long-term consequences, “Overall it would be better to know, if it means I can reduce the risk.”

So next time you find yourself avoiding your bank balance or the scale, or putting off that doctor's appointment, step back and do a little contemplation. Are you really better off staying ignorant? Or might you be causing yourself difficulties in the long-run? 

I’ve found it useful to draw out a table of the pros and cons of knowing versus not knowing, like below:

This makes it clear that there’s little to be gained by not checking my bank balance: It might save me some distress right now, but I’ll have to face that distress sooner or later—it’s only likely to get worse if I leave it 'til later, and it will probably stay in the back of my mind anyway. On the other hand, checking it now means I can decide what to do about my possibly-limited funds—and who knows, it might not even be as bad as I think!

Knowing the truth can be painful. But knowing the truth is also valuable—seeing the situation for what it is means we can do our best to deal with it. Aldous Huxley summed it up clearly when he said: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

© 2014 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Cafe