Most people have a complicated relationship with the idea of surprise. On the one hand, yes, it feels great to tear the wrapping paper off of something you really wanted but never expected, or to be knocked off your feet by a piece of good news, or to open your door on your birthday to find a gathering of all your favorite people, plus cake. Surprise, in other words, can magnify joy — but that doesn’t stop us from trying to spoil things for ourselves ahead of time. We ask pointed questions about plans and snoop through calendars. We beg for clues, or play guessing games. When no one’s looking, we shake the boxes under the tree.
All of which, new research suggests, really do make us less happy in the long run. According to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Review, most people, if given the choice, really don’t want to know what the future holds.
The study authors surveyed nationally representative samples of adults in Germany and Spain, asking participants how much they’d want to know about certain future life events. The researchers included items along the spectrum of mundane to life-altering, and negative to positive: Would you want to know what you were getting for Christmas? Or the final score of that soccer game? What about whether or not your marriage will last, or the sex of your future child, or how long you’ll live?
As might be expected, the overwhelming majority of participants — upwards of 85 percent — had no interest in learning about the bad stuff life had in store for them. More surprising, though, was the fact that people were also uninterested in learning about the good things: Depending on the question, somewhere between 40 to 70 percent preferred to remain in the dark.
There were some nuances: People were especially resistant to knowing things that would happen in the near future — the closer an event was to the present, the more likely they were to choose ignorance. (Age also played a role in this: Older participants were more okay with knowing how and when they would die, for example, while the younger ones had no interest in finding out.) And the more risk-averse someone was, the more likely they were to shy away from the idea of knowing what came next, while the opposite was true for people who frequently attended religious services. But overall, as lead author Gerd Gigerenzer, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, summed up in a statement: “Deliberate ignorance, as we’ve shown here, doesn’t just exist; it is a widespread state of mind.” So widespread, in fact, only 1 percent of survey respondents said they’d want to know every single thing on the list. The good news is, for most things, we don’t really have a choice.