Information Avoidance in the Modern Age

In this episode, Under the Cortex hosts Jeremy Foust from Kent State University about his new paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science titled “Information Avoidance: Past Perspectives and Future Directions.” The conversation with APS’s Özge G. Fischer-Baum starts with defining information avoidance and then explores some of the factors that impact whether someone will choose to avoid information. Foust and Fischer-Baum also dive into me-search and how social media has or has not impacted the ways we take in information. 

Unedited transcript

[00:00:14.850] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

We live in the information age, yet many people avoid information, choose not to have access to something which is right there. Why is that? Is it because there are too many channels of information? Is it a trust issue? Are we overwhelmed? This is Under the Cortex. I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with the Association for Psychological Science to speak about this study that analyzed the basics of information avoidance and the cognitive mechanisms behind it. I have with me Jeremy Foust from Kent State University, co author of an article recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Jeremy, thank you for joining me today. Welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:01:01.670] – Jeremy Foust 

Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:01:03.930] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

I want to dive into my questions right away. Your paper is very interesting. So your research explores why people avoid using information. How did you first get interested in this topic? 

[00:01:18.730] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, when I first started my PhD program, my advisor was working on a project about avoiding information about prediabetes. And so I just started working on that project as well, and it kind of just took off from there. I realized that I enjoyed reading about and learning about information avoidance. But personally, I think I was invested because I could so easily think about times in which I avoided information. And so this research quickly became me search, and I was learning about all of these reasons that other people are avoiding information and was kind of comparing and contrasting it with my own experiences. So it started off as just this opportunity and then became something that I became kind of personally invested in, but also really interested by. 

[00:02:15.130] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, as you say, we all do it time to time. I think we are all guilty of it. And one thing I like about your article is you start your article with different definitions of information avoidance. Can we go over that a little bit? So what are the different definitions? 

[00:02:34.770] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, information avoidance is this general construct. Seems really straightforward. It’s when a person chooses not to learn information, and probably the most common of the definitions was offered by Sweeney and colleagues in 2010 in their review of information avoidance. And they defined it as any behavior that prevents or delays the acquisition of available but potentially unwanted information. And, yeah, it seems straightforward, but as we thought more about it in our paper, we struggled to think about what counts as avoidance. So, does oversleeping and missing the morning tv news count as avoiding information? What about when someone doesn’t pay attention to something because they feel that the information doesn’t directly affect them? And so, in working through this paper, we had to come up with a clear kind of operational definition and wanted to offer some considerations when people are investigating information avoidance. So we talked about four different considerations. First, that information avoidance is different than information not seeking. So just this general lack of interest. Stopping a person from continuously seeking information is different than this active avoiding effort. Second, information avoidance is intentional, so it’s an active effort to prevent oneself from learning information. 

[00:04:05.070] – Jeremy Foust 

We talked about how information avoidance can be permanent or temporary. So it can be a decision to never learn information, or it can be the decision to hold off on learning something, perhaps till you have resources to cope with it, or feel like you’re equipped to handle the information. And then finally, we discussed this spectrum of personal relevance to the information. So when information is extremely relevant and personal, a person might avoid that information because they feel like it’s really scary and it’s going to affect them a lot. If it’s less relevant, maybe they’re avoiding the information because they don’t think it’s going to affect them. So although this definition is pretty straightforward, what counts and what doesn’t count is really important for people who are designing studies and even folks who are just reading and interpreting the findings to see what the researchers or what the scholars are counting as avoidance. Hopefully that answers your question more about these different things that distinguish information avoidance. 

[00:05:09.070] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, it does, and I want to go over some of them. We are living in the information age. We have information basically being thrown at us through multiple channels. The way we acquire information is very different from other generations. Right. So let’s talk about the contemporary phenomenon of news and social media algorithms. Do you think they contribute to people’s tendency to avoid information? 

[00:05:39.630] – Jeremy Foust 

I think this is a great topic to talk about. So information avoidance has been occurring for a long time. So it’s not simply just our social media bubbles, but people are likely getting more used to encountering information that’s consistent with their worldview every time they go on social media. These algorithms are great at telling us exactly what we want to hear. And this phenomena of seeking out information that’s consistent with your worldview is called selective exposure. So it’s distinct from information avoidance, but there’s some really cool selective exposure research for anyone who wants to further dive into that. But from an information avoidance perspective, people might just ignore information when it’s inconsistent with their worldview. I actually had the opportunity to collect some qualitative data from students in our lab as part of pilot data for my dissertation. And a few students said, I will avoid information on social media, especially when I think it’s wrong. But also with contemporary news and social media, people are encountering much more information than they really ever have. Before. And so people may feel this sense of information overload. And research has found that greater information overload is associated with greater information avoidance. 

[00:07:02.060] – Jeremy Foust 

But the social media and constant news cycle is relatively new, so there’s plenty of space out there for research on how this is directly associated with information avoidance. 

[00:07:12.890] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Thank you. So what I hear you saying is, yes, maybe social media has a role, but this is not the first time that this phenomena existed. Before social media, people were still avoiding information. Right. So, yeah, this brings me back to your paper because you folks did a really good job about coming up with a framework committee framework explaining the mechanism of information avoidance. Can we talk about that a little bit? What is your framework explaining information avoidance? 

[00:07:53.990] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, I would be happy to. So the framework in the paper basically just pots three overarching factors that influence the extent to which a person is likely going to avoid information. So these three overarching factors are beliefs about the information. So this is a person’s belief about the actual content of the information, maybe how they think the information is going to make them feel, or how scary it might be, or how useful it might be. The second overarching factor is beliefs about oneself. So this is a person’s belief about their ability to deal with threatening information. This might include coping resources, or self efficacy, or even a person’s ability to interpret possibly complicated information. And then the final factor, or the final component are these social and situational influences. So this includes how a person’s environment might shape their desire to avoid information. Maybe it’s social norms and what’s going on in someone’s culture, or potential effects from organizations like their employers or the government when they learn that information. And we also talk a little bit about how, although we grouped these factors, we put them in these categories. It’s really hard to group these into categories. 

[00:09:15.230] – Jeremy Foust 

There’s a lot of overlap between the factors, and all these antecedents likely influence one another. So, for example, the extent to which a person believes that they can cope with the information might then influence how threatening they think the information is. So I wouldn’t necessarily call these distinct, and there’s a lot of overlap between these different groupings, but ultimately, these three are going to then influence a person’s motivation or a person’s then decision to seek or avoid information. 

[00:09:46.730] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. One of the things I like about your framework, and I mean right now, your explanation is that you make a distinction between two different belief systems, right. One is when we interact with information, we have some beliefs about the information, and also we have beliefs about ourselves. Can you talk a little bit more about that distinction for our listeners? How do they interact and how they are different from each other? 

[00:10:15.560] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, that’s a great question. So generally, these information beliefs are just when a person anticipates what’s going to be part of the content of the information. So let’s say we’re in a medical setting. We’re at the doctor’s office, and our doctor says, do you want to know your test result for this? Even without knowing the information, a person probably has a guess as to, this is probably going to be bad, or this is going to be really scary, or they might think this is going to be great and make me feel good about myself. So that anticipating what is in the content of the information or what’s going to happen in the content is the belief about the information. The beliefs about yourself is how mainly you think you can handle the information or how you personally think you can respond to the information you’re showing up to the doctors, and maybe you have your partner next to you or someone who’s a really strong advocate or supporter of you, you might feel like, yes, I got this, I can handle it. This person next to me is going to help me. So these two factors are what you think is going to be in the message itself or in part of the information, and the second part is your ability to then receive that. 

[00:11:28.270] – Jeremy Foust 

And there are a lot of different examples. So in my dissertation right now, I’m exploring information avoidance in everyday life and a lot of different domains that people might avoid information. And so some of those domains include health and medical information. But also we work with a lot of students. And so another context in which people may avoid information from a student’s perspective is about their grades. Or if you’re working for a company, you might not want to know how your performance review went. So it could also be different evaluative contexts. And another domain is people and their finances or their money and how they want to know information about that. So there’s been some research about how people don’t necessarily want to know how their stock portfolio is doing when the overall stock market is down. So those are some really broad domains. Other ones, just to rattle off a few, include appearance. Sometimes people don’t want to know what other people think of their appearance. They might not want to know how their partner is perceiving them or their partner’s previous relationship history. So a variety of factors, things that might affect you personally, things that are really personally relevant, might be domains in which people are choosing to avoid information. 

[00:12:50.230] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Well, as a follow up question, I want to ask you why you are writing a dissertation about this. So you care about this topic. Why do you think it is important to study information avoidance? 

[00:13:05.770] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, that’s a great question. Like you said right at the beginning, we are in an information rich period of time. We’re encountering more information than ever before. And the information that people are encountering have these really big global consequences. They’re seeing information about climate change, about stuff that’s happening in the US and abroad. And from the US perspective, there’s also a lot of polarization. And so it’s really important to understand first how people are either selectively attending to or are outright avoiding information that they disagree with. And then it’s important then to understand how people are processing information as they learn it. So another thing that our lab does is we look at how people engage in defensive information processing. So once they do learn information, are they downplaying the risk of the disease? Are they saying that something isn’t as bad as it actually is? So I think future research on avoiding information is really important, but also then how we’re taking that information and processing it. So how are people interacting with new information as they’re encountering it, especially with how much information is out there and how much we have access to. 

[00:14:32.200] – Jeremy Foust 

So I just love reading what other people are writing and the other work that people are doing as well. So it’s just a cool space to be in right now. 

[00:14:40.170] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, it is a really interesting topic because as we have been saying, we are all guilty of it time to time, right. Especially in this country, there is a lot of polarization. Which brings me to my next question about the universality of your framework. Do you think your framework is applicable to all cultures? 

[00:15:01.070] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think so. A lot of the information of woden’s research has been conducted in the United States and less research has been done in other places. But to speculate, I would say that social and societal influence might be the element that most differs across cultures. So maybe in some places there are social norms about how much information you should avoid or seek, or maybe there are structures in place to support people when they encounter really scary health information, for example. So maybe a person who, I’m speculating on this, but maybe a person who lives in a country with free universal health care is going to feel like they can cope with scary health information better than someone who lives in a place where you have to pay a lot of money to treat a potential disease. So maybe financially the best thing to do is not learn that you have that disease so you don’t feel obligated to pay all of this money. So these are some differences, but I think that this framework and information avoidance research in general would need to extend to other cultures, be tested in other places before we know what cultural differences exist. 

[00:16:18.260] – Jeremy Foust 

So I wouldn’t be ready to say that yes, this is universally applicable to all different cultures, especially with how people are approaching and interpreting the information, but then also what social structures are in place that are either going to facilitate the seeking of information or even encouraging people to not learn information. 

[00:16:41.650] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, so I’m very excited to see which direction you go with your research. What are you thinking about your next steps for you to study this topic? 

[00:16:54.630] – Jeremy Foust 

I’m really excited about some next steps and I’ve spent some time thinking about them recently. One step that I’m really excited about pursuing next is exploring the outcomes of information avoidance. I think the prevailing assumption is that for the most part, information avoidance is bad and people should learn information. But this hasn’t been tested very often. Participants saying they wanted to avoid information because it would help them protect against bad feelings or promote these positive feelings. But a next step might be to test if this is actually the case. And I would also be interested in knowing whether temporary avoidance can actually be adaptive and beneficial, specifically when a person doesn’t have coping resources to deal with threatening information. So exploring these outcomes of information avoidance and seeing, are there instances in which it’s actually positive to stop learning information, avoid it, even temporarily waiting until you have the ability to cope with it, and then returning to the information when you can safely learn it, when you feel like you can do something about it. I think that is an interesting, for me at least, next step. I’m also currently working on in my dissertation, understanding the temporal dynamics of information avoidance. 

[00:18:25.290] – Jeremy Foust 

So exploring how affective and cognitive and behavioral factors are all correlated day to day with information avoidance decisions over a two week period of time. So on days in which people are experiencing more affect, are they also avoiding information, and how does that affect the following day’s behavior, for example? So I’m really excited to dive into these data in the next couple of weeks to explore some of these findings, and hopefully within a year or two they’re out there for everyone to also see. But that’s something that I’m really excited about doing in the next couple of months for sure. 

[00:19:03.790] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah, that sounds very exciting. And yeah, please let us know when you know more about your data. I liked everything you said about the directions that you want to take. I am personally interested in this idea of postponing the processing of information. Right. Maybe it’s the safety issue, emotional safety thing. So if we can figure out mechanisms giving rise to it, maybe we can create the right spaces for people to process information. 

[00:19:38.890] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah. Especially with knowing that when a person learns information they’re not ready to handle, sometimes the response they go to is just immediately downplaying it and protecting their self image and just saying, no, that could never happen to me. Or that doesn’t sound like me at all. But if people are delaying learning that information, like you said, until they’re ready to handle it, maybe instead of defensively responding, they’re going about changing their behavior. 

[00:20:06.930] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Let us know, please, when you have more information about your research. Jeremy, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners? 

[00:20:20.230] – Jeremy Foust 

Yeah, I think that understanding how people are engaging with information is really important work right now, and I encourage other people to think about how people might be avoiding your message or what’s encouraging them to avoid your message is really important when we’re disseminating these messages or telling people information. But I’m also just really excited about what work is happening in the field right now. And if you haven’t had a chance to read anything about information avoidance or explore it, I’d encourage people to take a look at it. I also had really excellent reviewers for this paper, so I just want to quickly shout out that the review process for me was really great. They provided outstanding feedback and were really kind. So thank you to them. Finally, I’m so grateful to my graduate advisor and co author on this paper, Dr. Jennifer Taber. She’s been such a great mentor, and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her and look forward to many more years of collaboration. 

[00:21:22.970] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Thank you very much. And I’m very pleased to hear that you had a positive review process. There is change in the field going into that direction, and we, in fact, have one podcast episode about how APS is taking the lead in this more positive review processes. I am very happy to hear that. Thank you again, Jeremy. 

[00:21:46.120] – Jeremy Foust 

Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:21:48.530] – APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum 

This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Jeremy Foust from Kent State University. If you want to know more about this research, visit 

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