We live in the age of information. With so much information available, we must be selective about what we choose to know and which information we ignore or avoid.
When browsing Psychology Today or scrolling through social media, you are making repeated decisions about whether to seek or avoid information. But how do we decide what we want to know or not know? And why is some knowledge more important? Research is beginning to answer these questions by measuring different ways information is useful.
Studies have shown that how we seek or avoid information is critical for our physical and mental health and relationships.
1. Information can improve our choices and actions.
Perhaps the most obvious reason we seek information is to help us make better decisions or guide our actions. We check the weather forecast to decide whether to pack an umbrella or sunglasses.
Reading posts about health and wellbeing offers information about ways to improve these, and medical tests can determine what actions to take, like isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.
We also seek information from and about other people, which is vital for our interactions and relationships. Knowing that a friend is going through a difficult time is the key first step in being able to support them. It’s important to remember that more information isn’t always better.
Once we know something, it’s hard to forget or overlook it. Information could have a negative impact on our choices and actions if it’s wrong or inappropriate, such as a new diet that is harmful or not suitable for everyone. Even if information is accurate, it could negatively affect our ability to achieve goals, for example, discovering a new bakery just by your office. Sometimes it is helpful to actively avoid information if it helps us stay committed or motivated.
Avoiding information that might tempt us into breaking resolutions is a powerful commitment tool.
2. Information affects how we feel.
Although information can improve our choices and shape our behaviours, sometimes we seek information that is not useful. At other times, we actively avoid information that could improve our choices.
One important example of avoiding information, even though it could improve our health, is not getting a medical test for diagnosis or genetic risk of a disease. The negative impact on mood and mental health of this information reveals another motivation for seeking or avoiding information: how it makes us feel. The reverse is also true. We might want to know information purely because we expect it to be positive and make us feel good.
Our drive to have positive or desirable beliefs about the world creates a bias towards seeking positive information but ignoring or avoiding negative information. Research has found that people will pay money to receive good news and avoid bad news about the results of a small financial lottery.
How knowledge impacts our mood also affects the timing of information seeking to create or resolve anticipation. Humans and monkeys generally prefer to know good news sooner rather than later. However, we might also want to get bad news over with, like wanting to know your exam result straight away when you feel you’ve done badly.
Anticipation can be positive too, like keeping the destination of a trip secret, so it’s a surprise for your partner. We likely have similar preferences for information about other people. Our ability to empathise means we can feel joy when something good happens to someone else and feel their pain or sadness when things go wrong.
Empathic emotions play a key role in our social relationships. Still, there’s a chance they could undermine our ability to connect with others if empathy means we avoid negative information about other people suffering.
Medical tests are associated with bad news and might be avoided, even if they are useful.
Being biased towards good news doesn’t just affect what we want to know but also how we integrate new information into our existing beliefs. Positive information has more of an impact.
We feel lots more confident in our views when someone else agrees but only a little bit less confident when someone else disagrees.
This same imbalance is true for how we take on feedback from other people and how we likely think it is that good or bad things will happen in the future. Being biased towards good news might play an important role in mental health as this bias was not found for people with depression.
However, being overly confident or optimistic can also have negative consequences for our work, health, and social interactions. Therefore, the relationship between information and mood is complex, and further research is needed to understand the precise association.
3. Information helps us understand the world.
Some information is not positive or negative or useful for parameterizing choices, yet we still want to know. Audiences are intrigued by how a magician performs a trick, and smartphones are often used to resolve heated debates over trivial facts. Seeking information in these contexts can be driven by a desire to reduce uncertainty and have a clearer understanding of the world.
Such curiosity is often triggered when we become aware of a gap in our knowledge that we want to fill. News headlines and blog titles are good examples of this, particularly those that start with a question. Reading that question increases our attention on the gap in our knowledge if we don’t already know the answer and makes us want to know more.
Magic tricks can leave us curious about the secret behind them.
The topics we are especially likely to be curious about are most relevant to our identity, interests, or recent experiences. This tendency has also been linked to mental health.
People with stronger preferences to know information about topics they rated as most relevant to them also scored higher on a measure of overall mental health.
More research is needed to understand whether how we seek information shapes our mental health, whether our mood or anxiety determines what information we want to know, or whether the link goes both ways.