Character  &  Context

Avoiding information to protect an intuitive preference

Image of decadent chocolate molten cake on a fork

Starting a diet? Avoiding the bakery section at the grocery store is a good way to start. Not knowing what tempting baked goods are available can make it easier to stick with your health goal.

But what if you’re out celebrating a big promotion, and the chocolate cake is already calling your name? Could avoiding information about the calorie count of the cake before you make your decision also be considered a “smart” strategy?

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, with my co-author Jane L. Risen at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, we examined situations like this when a strong intuitive desire conflicts with a more reasoned response. Metaphorically speaking, we examined situations when following one’s heart is complicated by concerns of the head. Our goal was to understand whether people avoid information (e.g., nutritional information) that could encourage a deliberative response in order to protect an intuitive preference.

As a first test, we asked participants to imagine they were out celebrating with friends over dinner, and that they wanted to order a delicious chocolate molten cake. Before deciding whether to get the cake or not, they could first learn how many calories were in it. Most people facing this decision wanted to avoid learning the calorie information. Yet, when we later assigned participants to receive calorie information, it influenced their decision: those who learned the cake had 700 calories were more likely to turn down the cake than those who learned it had just 385 calories. This was true even for individuals who wanted to avoid the information in the first place.

Thus, people avoided information that was relevant for their decision – that is, information that they would use if it were provided. But were people avoiding information as a strategy to protect their decision?

To test this, in another study we offered participants an emotionally unappealing bet: it only paid out if a sympathetic college student did poorly in one of his classes.  People don’t like to benefit from misfortune, and most did not want to take this bet. The bet was financially rational, however, because it only had financial upside - participants couldn’t lose any money if they took it. Crucially, we gave half of participants the choice to accept or refuse this emotionally unappealing bet, whereas we automatically assigned the other participants to accept the bet.

Although all participants in the study could learn how much the bet would pay out from a range of $0-$25, this information was only relevant for participants who had a decision to make – those who had a choice to refuse or accept the bet. We found that participants facing such a decision avoided learning the bet payout information more than those automatically assigned to take the bet. Because participants with a choice wanted to refuse the bet, and learning the exact payout could make it harder for them to do so, these participants avoided learning the information altogether. Overall, these findings broaden the literature on information avoidance, showing that it extends to the goal of protecting an intuitive decision.

One conclusion from these results is that people are making a mistake by avoiding information that they would factor into their decision if it were provided. Alternatively, the mistake is in using information people would have preferred to avoid. Following your head is not always right, but it can be hard to ignore. For this reason, avoiding information, like the calories in cake, may be wise if a person wants to order dessert once in a while, and knows that learning calorie information would prevent this.

Kaitlin Woolley is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. She studies consumer motivation and decision making, with a focus on understanding goal pursuit and persistence.

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