We live in a time of unprecedented levels of easily accessible information. Practically all of us walk around every day with a supercomputer in our pocket that connects us to near enough the sum total of all human knowledge to date. Heck, we can’t even poop these days without seeing headlines about the latest scientific breakthroughs on social media.
And yet there are still people out there who think elephants are religious and the government is controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Clearly, some of us – and let’s face it, we’re all guilty sometimes – are deciding that sometimes, they’d prefer to remain ignorant. But why?
A new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, has an answer. From five experiments, conducted on more than 500 participants, researchers figured out that most of us fall into one of three categories – there are the thinkers, who decide whether to learn new information about a topic based on how much they already think about related topics; the utilitarians, who decide what to learn based on how useful they think the information will end up being; and the feelers, who decide based on how they think the new information will make them feel.
“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships,” said study co-lead author Professor Tali Sharot. “By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”
Wondering which group you fall into? Let’s take a look at some of the experiments
In one, volunteers were asked how much they would want to know about certain genetic health information: whether they had a risk gene for Alzheimer’s, for example. In another, they were asked how much they wanted to learn specific financial information – impersonal stuff like exchange rates, as well as quite sensitive facts like which income percentile they fell into. Another experiment had the participants rate how interested they were in how they were perceived by others – would you want to know how lazy or intelligent your friends and family really think you are?
Later, the volunteers were asked to rate the hypothetical tidbits based on those three personal factors – thoughts, utility, and feelings. Compared to all the other models tested, the researchers found that this three-factor model was best at explaining test subjects’ choices of whether to find out information or leave it unknown.
Now, we know what you’re thinking: we promised you “three types of people”, not “three factors that people take into consideration for individual pieces of information.” But here’s where it gets interesting: the researchers repeated the experiments a few times, over a period of months, with some of the participants and it turns out most of us consistently prioritize one factor over the others.
Interesting though this discovery is, it’s far from just some trivial personality quiz – there are some really important real-world implications, the researchers say.
“At the moment policy-makers overlook the impact of information on people’s emotions or ability to understand the world around them,” explained co-lead author Christopher Kelly. “[They] focus only on whether information can guide decisions.”
“By understanding people's motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information,” Kelly added. “For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message.”