Most People Would Prefer Not to Know If Bad Things are Going to Happen
It’s a natural inclination to research, think about and speculate about what will happen in the future. This may be linked to our aversion to uncertainty.
Science can help us by providing data to forecast significant events — for example in disease or climate change.
But many people would prefer not to know and choose not to know, even when the information available can have a significant bearing on their lives. Which can in part why some people block out the frightening information about climate change, the pandemic and war.
Researchers Gerd Gigerenzer and Rocio Garcia-Retamero, have tried to describe the this tendency. Their study in Psychological Review suggests that it is a fear of what we might discover — and wishing that we’d never known — that often drives us to deliberate ignorance.
Gigerenzer, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and Garcia-Retamero at the University of Granada, recruited representative participants in Germany and Spain whether they would be willing to know the following: The date or cause of their own or their partner’s death; whether their marriage would end in divorce; as well as information relating to positive future events like knowing the gender of their unborn child; and at a more mundane level, or what was in store for them under the Christmas wrapping paper.
Previous research had shown that people with elevated disease risks chose deliberate ignorance between 10 and 30 per cent.
In the Gigerenzer and Garcia-Retamero study, however, almost 90 per cent of participants said they’d prefer not to know about future negative events. Rates of deliberate ignorance were also high for positive events, but more variable — only a third of participants said they did not want to know their child’s gender, for instance, compared with three quarters preferring not to know the outcome of a sports contest they were watching.
The researchers wanted to know what was driving this wilful ignorance
Gigerenzer and Garcia-Retamero’s proposed that it is about anticipated regret: people’s fear that they may regret hearing what’s going to happen. People susceptible to fearing regret also tend to be risk-averse: taking risks often involves seeing the repercussions of your decision.
To test whether anticipated regret was driving deliberate ignorance, Gigerenzer and Garcia-Retamero asked their participants to complete classic measures of risk aversion, like choosing between the option of different sized cash sums now versus a 50 per cent chance to win 100 Euros, with preference for guaranteed lower sums corresponding to more risk aversion.
Supporting their explanation, the researchers found the participants who had chosen to be deliberately ignorant were also more risk averse.
Also consistent with the anticipated regret hypothesis was the researchers’ finding that participants were more in favour of ignorance when events were imminent. So 13 per cent of those participants under the age of 35 said they would want to know about the date their partner would die, for example, but this was true for only 8 per cent of over-50s.
This surprised the researchers because information about an imminent outcome is usually considered more relevant, and we tend to think of the young as uninterested in the future and living for today. But if it is regret that’s driving things, it makes more sense: a youngster discovering that they will die in their 60s, not the more typical 70s, is unlikely to be devastated by the bad news, but for a 60-year-old, this is too fearful a fact to risk knowing. The researchers also found that participants who bought more insurance policies — a real-world measure of risk avoidance — were also slightly more likely to choose deliberate ignorance for the future events.
The researchers concluded that it seems surprising that so many people shy away from potentially useful information about the future. Knowing the timing of your future demise could shape how you save for old age, for example, while learning whether an infinite existence lies beyond death would likely shape how you approach this life.
But it seems many of us prefer ignorance, driven by the fear that we might regret discovering something better left unknown.
Where this phenomena has potentiality to be collectively dangerous for us, of course, is contemplating the future with respect to issues such as climate change, war, poverty and other potentially catastrophic events.