This week, I will be discussing another topic from David McRaney, Active Information Avoidance. It is very closely related to the subject of tribal philosophy and indeed some of the behavior we indulge in from a tribal viewpoint.
These behaviors can also be known as the Ostrich Effect or as I have always referred to it, being in denial (which isn’t just a river in Egypt 😊).
Active Information Avoidance is the theory that people will actively try to avoid information that they feel either will be painful, oppose their beliefs, etc.
This occurs when
1. The information is useful
2. We know the information exists
3. And we know it is available. And in fact, we know that if we do not get the information it may in fact impose a cost upon us to not know it.
And with all three of those factors … we actively choose to avoid the information anyway. The obvious benefit driving the behavior? It causes us less pain in the short run.
There have been numerous studies done on this matter (I refer you to the link to the podcast) but a few really stood out for me.
· Not wanting to open a bill that comes in the mail because you are afraid to see the amount.
· Not wanting to go to see a doctor or to get a medical test because you’re afraid of what you might find out.
· Not logging into your stock market account when the stock market goes down (perversely this actually does provide a benefit to the person because it means they are more likely to hold onto their stocks rather than be tempted into making a trade. And holding onto your stocks long-term does tend to be the better decision).
· The example that they gave that really made me shake my head was the one about Fannie Mae. In the aftermath of the Fannie Mae meltdown quite some years ago, Fannie Mae came out with an extremely good program to help people who are underwater on their mortgage loans. In effect they were going to lower the principal on the loans that the people taken out. The problem was they had very few people take them up on the offer. Why? They wouldn’t open the envelopes. They had even tried to make the procedure as painless as possible, down to just a single sheet of paper that need to be filled out in order to avail of the program. And still, people simply wouldn’t open the envelopes.
This behavior is very common, and the reason, of course, is clear. Active Information Avoidance is something that people indulge themselves in when knowing the information may prove to be painful to them, particularly if they might be the source of the problem. A good example here, given in the podcast, was one of the researchers commenting that he used to be a terrible teacher. As such, he consistently refused to read his student reviews at the end of his courses. But of course, as he says, he was the one person that really did need to read them because otherwise how could he improve.
We are supposed to, as rational adults, be Bayesian in our approach to information. Being Bayesian means that you may have prior views, but as new data becomes available, you absorb it, evaluate it on its evidentiary credibility, and at that point you should discard the least useful information you have about the subject matter in question, and reevaluate your position. However, of course, human beings rarely do this. In fact, the more information you get (especially given our access to information these days), the more likely you are to be reinforced in your original beliefs. When your beliefs are strong, and you see opposing information, you tend to dismiss and denigrate both the information and its source. Hence the frequent accusations, these days, of “fake news”.
As I listened to this podcast, instance after instance popped up in my mind where I have done and indulged in exactly this type of blind avoidance. I know that I’ve done it with bills, I know I’ve done it with emails that had information I was pretty sure was going to be unpleasant to read, I’ve done it with phone calls from people that I didn’t want to talk to, etc. I am currently in the throes of fixing a problem that I have with a certain (to remain unnamed) government authority. And as I deal with this problem, I realize that had I not been in the throes of Active Information Avoidance for years, it probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near as troublesome as it is proving to be now.
So, again the question arises, what do we do about this?
First and foremost, just like tribal behavior, you must recognize that you have the problem.
I don’t think of myself as ill-educated or ill-read, but the reason I write about these things on my blog is when I have heard about them it has opened my eyes to my own behavior.
The best way to deal with Active Information Avoidance is:
1. Be aware of it.
2. Make a conscious effort to seek out and be aware of opposing views.
That’s a tough one (#2). I know full well that when I see a headline that is written by a person or entity that is actively against whatever I might personally believe in, I won’t read it. Why? I don’t want to upset myself. But, sometimes, I think you have to make the effort. And who knows, we might actually learn something.
I believe this is really worth taking actively onboard. Why? As bad as it might be to indulge in AIA as an individual, the consequences when it is done in a situation with a wider scope can be truly disastrous. Examples?
· Not doing the due diligence on business deals or major purchases because the parties involved really want the deal to happen – regardless of what the long-term consequences could be.
· Climate change – Need I say more? Ostrich Effect poster child.
· Political negotiations – look at the last U.S. budget, or any government budget for that matter.
And here is the link to the podcast.