Why people are good at avoiding unpleasant information

Alice G. Walton | Mar 19, 2021

In some situations, people may avoid information they’d otherwise say is important to them—such as the number of calories in a dish at a restaurant or the manufacturing practices behind a potential product purchase. Why reduce our enjoyment by entertaining unwanted facts?

Cornell’s Kaitlin Woolley (a graduate of Chicago Booth’s PhD Program) and Booth’s Jane L. Risen explain how people manage to avoid information so successfully: we’re able to justify our avoidance by focusing on a different but relevant element. 

Past research in this vein has generally applied the phenomenon, known as “cover,” to discrimination. For instance, Woolley and Risen cite one study in which participants chose between two rooms to watch a movie in. One room held a person in a wheelchair; the other was empty. Some participants were told that the same movie would play in both rooms, so the choice of where to watch boiled down to whether to sit next to the person in a wheelchair. Other participants learned that each room would host a different movie, thus they could attribute their choice to differences in movies rather than to the room’s occupant. With this cover, they could avoid the person in a wheelchair without acknowledging this as the reason for their choice. Because the experimenters counterbalanced which room played which movie, they were able to determine that the movie itself did not drive choice; those with cover were avoiding interacting with a disabled person.

Woolley and Risen wondered if the effect of cover would also apply more broadly, including to the type of “want-should” situation people might encounter, say, at a restaurant, where they want an indulgent menu item but know they should look at the calorie count. 

In one in a series of experiments, the researchers had online participants view lunch menus from two restaurants and then choose the restaurant to which they wanted a gift card. Participants were divided into a cover and a no-cover group. In the no-cover condition, the only difference in the two menus was that one presented calorie counts and one did not, so participants who chose the restaurant without calories on the menu knew that they were choosing to avoid this information. In the cover condition, however, the two menus included additional information: the ratings of the restaurants’ service and atmosphere, which were counterbalanced across participants. Those with cover could avoid calorie information without acknowledging their motivation.

As the researchers anticipated, in the cover condition, more people chose the restaurant whose menu didn’t include calorie information—44 percent, versus 33 percent in the no-cover condition. This suggests when supplemental information offers people an out, they take it. 

When people don’t need to acknowledge that they are avoiding information, they seem much more likely to do so.

The same was true in two in-person experiments that examined avoidance of product labels containing information that people generally don’t want to see but believe they should. In one, participants given supplemental, counterbalanced information about the size and price of bottles of water tended to avoid buying the bottles whose labels included information about the global clean-water crisis. In the other, when choosing a candy, participants given cover information about the candy’s popularity more often chose the option without information about the ill effects of sugar. 

But what happens when the nagging “should” element—such as the obligation to watch calories—is quieted? In this case, the researchers find, the effect dissolves, at least in part. They designed a setup almost identical to the menu experiment, with cover and no-cover conditions. The main difference was that participants were split again: some were told they were eating out on a special occasion (their birthday party), while the others were told it was an ordinary after-work meal with coworkers.

  

Presumably those out for a birthday bash would feel at liberty to indulge. Indeed, the effect of cover all but disappeared in the special-occasion condition, suggesting that when people don’t feel the “should” pull, there’s no need for cover. In another study—which involved choosing whether to look at informative but potentially disturbing ultraviolet photos of skin damage—the effect of cover disappeared when researchers dampened the desire to avoid information. When participants had to choose if a friend, rather than themselves, should see the images, they were more inclined to agree to it, cover or no cover. The findings demonstrate that cover affects avoidance specifically when people are experiencing inner conflict over information they believe they should receive, but don’t really want. 

Information avoidance is often estimated by explicitly asking consumers whether or not they want information. Because many situations in which consumers make decisions involve the presence of cover, however, these findings suggest that previous estimates may provide a lower bound for a more common behavior. Indeed, when people don’t need to acknowledge that they are avoiding information, they seem much more likely to do so.