A new UCL study indicates that people seek or avoid information on their health, wealth, and personal attributes based on how it makes them feel, how beneficial it is, and if it links to things they think about frequently.
According to the findings published in Nature Communications, the majority of people fall into one of three ‘information-seeking types’: those who prioritize the impact of information on their feelings when deciding whether to become informed, those who prioritize the utility of information for decision-making, and those who prioritize issues they frequently think about.
According to Professor Tali Sharot, co-author of study,:
“Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals. This includes everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy. We wanted to find out: how do people decide what they want to know? And why do some people actively seek out information, for example about COVID vaccines, financial inequality and climate change, and others don’t?
“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships. By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”
The researchers conducted five tests with 543 research participants to determine how information seeking is influenced by various conditions.
In one trial, participants were asked how much information they desired regarding their health, such as if they possessed an Alzheimer’s risk gene or a gene associated with a robust immune system. They were also asked whether they desired to see financial information such as exchange rates or their income percentile, and whether they desired to learn how their relatives and friends assessed them on attributes such as intelligence and laziness.
Later in the study, participants were asked how valuable they believed the information would be, how they anticipated it would make them feel, and how frequently they thought about each issue.
The team discovered that individuals seek information based on three criteria: potential utility, emotional impact, and relevance to often thought-about topics. This three-factor model best explained decisions to seek or avoid knowledge compared to a range of other alternative models studied.
Many participants repeated the experiments several times over a period of months. The researchers discovered that the majority of people prioritize one of the three motives (emotions, usefulness, or frequency of thought) over the others, and that this preference remained relatively stable across time and domains, implying that what motivates each individual to seek information is ‘trait-like’.
In two experiments, participants also completed a questionnaire about their mental health. The study indicated that persons who desired to know about their own traits reported greater mental health.
PhD student Christopher Kelly (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research) who co-authored the study, added: “By understanding people’s motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information. For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message.
“The research can also help policy makers decide whether information, for instance on food labels, needs to be disclosed, by describing how to fully assess the impact of information on welfare. At the moment policy-makers overlook the impact of information on people’s emotions or ability to understand the world around them, and focus only on whether information can guide decisions.”
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