Sometimes, it just feels easier not to know. A recent Wall Street Journal column calls attention to the research on what psychologists call information avoidance, also known as strategic ignorance. It’s the totally understandable yet often destructive human impulse to run and hide rather than face uncomfortable truths.
The examples offered in the article mostly center on health: You know your tooth is aching, or your heart has taken to randomly racing, or your knee kills you when you run. But you’re afraid to see a doctor, because of what they might tell you. Easy fix: Don’t see a doctor!
This is clearly not the wisest long-term strategy, and so the piece offers some suggestions from the psychological literature that have been shown to help people muster the courage to face hard truths. (They are also, incidentally, not bad strategies to keep in mind when opening one’s Twitter feed these days.) The advice boils down to three questions, two of which are rather straightforward. The first appeals to your sense of rationality: How might it be useful to know the thing you’re trying not to know? The second appeals to your sense of autonomy: Are there facets of this unruly problem that actually are under your control?
But the third question is less obvious, which also makes it most interesting: What’s important to you?
This at first seems like a non sequitur. It isn’t. Research on “affirmation interventions” has shown that when people take the time to remind themselves of their core values — perhaps by scribbling down their life goals, or making a mental list of the people who make their life matter — they become more open to hearing important but potentially negative information. “This makes whatever threat is looming in front of you feel rather small and your resources to handle it seem larger,” James Sheppard, a University of Florida psychologist who has studied information avoidance, tells the WSJ. Ignoring a problem, alas, does not usually help make it disappear.