Blissful ignorance is almost our natural state

27 January 2015

It is often said ignorance is bliss and scientists have found it is almost a natural state for humans.

Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, reveals in The Human Zoo on BBC Radio 4  how a constant battle between our short-term self and long-term self often sees our short-term self triumph, which leads to us avoiding the pain of knowing some unwanted information.

But this information can sometimes be of vital importance: like not looking at bank statements when we are in debt, or not going to the doctor to look at a lump we have found.

This potentially dangerous tendency is known by behavioural scientists as ‘information avoidance’, where people intentionally delay or prevent themselves acquiring unwanted information.

Professor Chater said: “In our minds, there is a constant struggle between our short-term self and our long-term self. These forces are always battling away when we are considering whether to find out potentially worrying (though perhaps useful) information or whether to just avoid it. But our bias is to favour the immediate rewards of the short-term self and avoid the potentially unwanted information, effectively burying our head in the sand. Even when the information is a matter of life and death people tend to avoid it because of this imbalance to favour the short-term self."

Numerous studies have found that anywhere between 12 and 55 per cent of people who undergo testing for HIV fail to return to learn whether they were infected or not. Similarly studies have also found a large percentage of people decide not to learn their genetic risk for colon cancer or breast cancer when given the opportunity to take a test.

“In these examples finding out the information might produce very difficult emotions,” said Professor Chater, who is part of the Behavioural Science Group at Warwick Business School. “But we may also avoid, say, looking at the calorie information on food labels, because knowing how much we eat may require a change in behaviour, which we do not want to make.

"This impulse to remain ignorant is driven by our tendency to pay too much attention to the present and to ‘discount’ the future excessively, a tendency known as hyperbolic discounting. This is where we tend to discount the future, so we increasingly choose the sooner and smaller reward rather than the bigger reward further into the future. So we might see that finding out about the test results is good for us in the long term, but in the short term we choose to ignore or avoid it, we over-emphasise the reward of the present.”

Professor Chater suggests there are strategies of getting around our tendency for information avoidance.

“The information avoidance trap is very tempting,” said Professor Chater. “But we can step around this pitfall by pretending we are giving advice to a friend in the same situation as we are. Then, we can see that our advice would be to find out the results of the test or look through our bank statements to put our finances in order. Or you can think about what life will be like in a year’s time if you continue to avoid the information - would you be glad you had that lump checked out? Almost certainly yes. These are two good methods to break away from the tyranny of the short-term self.”

To listen to the The Human Zoo click here.

To take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.

Professor Nick Chater teaches Behavioural Sciences for the Manager on the Warwick Executive MBA and Principles of Cognition on the suite of MSc Business courses. He also teaches Emotions in Business on Warwick Business School's Undergraduate courses.

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