“Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want to Know”: How Information Avoidance Can Keep Us Insulated From Important Social Problems
By Alex Garinther
A version of this article was originally published December 2018 on the website www.arithmeticofcompassion.org.
There are more displaced persons in the world today than ever before. Instability in places like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan has forced millions to flee their homes and seek refuge around the globe. As the demand for open borders has increased, so too has the ability of individuals who are unaffected by these problems to control their media and tune-out this mass suffering, should they choose to.
To make progress on important social issues like the global refugee crisis, we first must be willing to engage with relevant information about the problem. Unfortunately, what a growing body of research suggests is just how hard it is for many of us to do just that—to open ourselves up to the harsh realities of the world. In a sea of news headlines with countless options to choose from, US readers may be more inclined to click past an article about Yemeni plight this December and head their cursor toward a feel-good holiday story instead.
This isn’t exactly surprising; there are a myriad of forces working against us in this effort, and many of them are well-known. Busyness from our own lives, endless distractions, the need to deal with our own happiness, and motivational forces far and wide, both conscious and nonconscious, can get in the way of our ability to engage with unsavory news. Research psychologist Kate Sweeny and her colleagues were among the first to popularize the term “information avoidance,” and describe what might drive this particular human tendency. For those of us who live comfortable day-to-day lives, learning about social injustice can be unpleasant, disheartening, and a frustrating endeavor (especially with problems that seem big and unsolvable, like global poverty or the refugee crisis). We’d rather not take on the emotional burden. Besides, what can we do to help?
Framing the question this way unveils what some consider a less-obvious, sneakier form of information avoidance. Beyond protecting ourselves emotionally, this second form of avoidance is one we deploy strategically—to rationalize decisions that are hard to face. Researchers in Germany Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel classify these ideas under the heading “deliberate ignorance”— choosing not to know. It echoes an old schoolyard saying: “You can’t be blamed for what you don’t know.” This clever excuse allows us to eschew liability when we really could be helping. For those who have been studying this process among consumers of the news media, the message is clear: the information we put in front of us is not a matter of mere happenstance—nor is it always a matter of our moral, conscious reasoning—it may have much to do with subconscious, unthinking, or potentially self-serving motives (even when we don’t sense it).
One thing this work tells us is that given the same menu of items, people seem to be consuming very different information diets.
What We Found.
The Decision Research team associated with the University of Oregon has been working to better understand these issues and set out to observe in real-time the process of deliberate ignorance in the face of global resettlement efforts. In one study, we began by asking a panel of Americans to consider whether or not they would like to help refugees in the Middle East by allowing them to relocate to communities across the U.S. The panel of 300 people was close to nationally-representative: mean age of 34 years, 60% male, 60% Caucasian, high school and college-educated, and an even mix of liberals and conservatives. While considering this relocation proposal, we provided our American participants with a menu of information items to consider—short, one-line descriptions similar to news headlines or press briefings. We presented 15 of these information items and allowed participants to choose which ones they would like to incorporate into their thinking about the issue; we said they could select only the most “important” ones.
What we found was that participants who came into the study with attitudes that were already less-than-positive toward refugees were much more likely to hone in on information that might highlight the downsides of refugee settlement (e.g., an analysis of potential risks, crime statistics from other nations who’ve accepted migrants), and much less likely to pay attention to information about who these refugees were as people, what they could contribute, or where they would turn if denied refuge. On the contrary, participants who entered the study with neutral to positive views of refugees tended to select relatively equal amounts of security and humanitarian-related information. One thing this work tells us is that given the same menu of items, people seem to be consuming very different information diets. It also tells us that some percentage of Americans are simply turning a blind eye to the experiences of those in need, and using a cherry-picked base of information to promote exclusionist preferences.
Even with these results, it's important to acknowledge we still don’t know exactly why different people choose to click on different pieces of information. The process is complicated, and probably has multiple causes. We can’t pretend to know what’s going on inside everyone’s head. Maybe those who cherry pick security-related information are genuinely more susceptible to the emotional pull of fear-inducing stimuli. Alternatively, some people might ignore information on international issues but care deeply about helping those in their home communities. Political affiliations certainly play a role, too. These are open questions for future work to explore.
Limitations notwithstanding, findings like these shed some light on why the current US administration has had little problem slashing foreign aid and rebuffing migrant support programs. In our democratic society, the attention of the public is what should and often does direct the attention of our leaders. But if considerable sections of the American public are as likely to ignore relevant information as some of the folks in our study, what kind of pressure are we putting on Washington to support humanitarian action?
Fighting our own deliberate ignorance, and challenging others to do the same, is an important first step toward keeping humanitarian interests a part of this country’s foreign policy agenda. Even taking small actions like clicking on one article per day that we typically would ignore can help open us up to new perspectives and break the cycle of (sometimes nonconscious) information avoidance.