How Humans Use 'Strategic Ignorance' When Facts Get In The Way
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump has talked an awful lot about fake news this past year, and it's not just the president. Other Republicans use this term. Democrats use it. It has become an increasingly partisan phrase. Don't like something? Call it fake news. Social science research explores how our minds actually push away information that gets in the way of our feelings and desires. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam talked with our own David Greene about this.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: There are none so blind as those who do not wish to see.
GREENE: Some of us know that phrase. Is that what we're talking about here?
VEDANTAM: It's partly what we're talking about, David. Social scientists have called this information aversion for many years. Even though it makes sense to take in all the facts, we sometimes ignore unpleasant or scary information. There's new work that adds to this existing body of research. I was speaking with Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell University, and she gave me an example of how this might work in real life. Say, you're sitting down at a restaurant and you have the option of seeing the calorie information on your menu.
KAITLIN WOOLLEY: I really love trying different ice cream flavors, so if I were to see the calorie information, I might avoid it because I want to get the ice cream. And I know that if I saw that calorie information, it would prevent me from being able to order the ice cream in the first place.
GREENE: (Laughter) She just wants the ice cream. And it's like, I don't want to know. Don't tell me. I'm having this ice cream.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, usually with information aversion, studies have found that people avoid information that is scary or painful. So instead of finding out they have a disease, they'll put off going to the doctor. But in a series of experiments, Woolley and her co-author, Jane Risen, find that people demonstrate something that they call strategic ignorance. In other words, you want to vote for a candidate. You know there's information out there that is damaging to the candidate. You know that listening to the information might cause you to change your mind. So you just push the information away.
WOOLLEY: That would be similar to our work where people are avoiding information because they have an initial preference that they want to protect. And they think the information would dissuade them from following through with that decision.
GREENE: So Shankar, sometimes it's just fear of, like, letting things get more complicated than you want it to be. Like, if I know more, it'll complicate - it'll make me doubt myself, so better to just keep the information away.
VEDANTAM: This might be more a question of your head not agreeing with your heart, David. So let's say your heart wants to do something. You want to pursue some course of action. You know that if you actually got all the information about this course of action, your head might dissuade your heart from doing it. And so what your heart says is, tell the head not to take in any more information. Hold the information at bay because it allows me to do whatever it is that I want to do.
GREENE: Well, Shankar, let me just ask you this. Fake news is this term that, as I mentioned, has exploded in politics from all sides in the last year or so. Does the phenomenon that we've talked about here with ice cream relate in some way?
VEDANTAM: I think it does, David. Of course, fake news comes in different shapes and forms. You can call something fake news just because you think it's inaccurate. You can also say something is fake news because you're being tactical. You're actually trying to undermine the reputation of the news because it doesn't suit your own agenda. But I think this is a third phenomenon we're talking about here, which is you actually want to do something. And you actually believe that if you got all the news about it, you would behave rationally. You would choose to do something different. You don't want to do that, and so you hold this new information at bay.
GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "ANGELIC BREATHS")
MARTIN: That was our co-host David Greene talking with Shankar Vedantam. He's NPR's social science correspondent. Shankar is also the host of a podcast and a radio show that explore the unseen patterns in human behavior. Both are called Hidden Brain.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
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