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How to deliberately avoid vital information

Woman trying to read book whilst blindfolded

Why would you want to avoid vital information deliberately? That makes no sense. However, it is precisely what each of us does, every day. We set about ensuring we take all the necessary steps to avoid useful information.

We have never lived in a world with so much information. Indeed, one study suggests that before too long the entire extent of all human knowledge will be doubling every 12 hours…! You are not going to be short of information.

However, we are extremely selective with the information we choose to use.

Consider Donald Trump. Or Nigel Farage. Or Marine Le Pen. It doesn’t matter which. These people have raving fans as well as individuals who detest them. They are “Marmite” characters. But take a look at their followers, the people who love them. They devour information about their idols. If anyone says anything negative, or against their hero, the whole arena of “confirmation bias” opens up because they look for “cracks” in what other people are saying to prove their viewpoint is right. When someone is wedded to a particular perspective, such as the position of Donald Trump, anything that suggests the opposite is a threat. And humans do everything they can to avoid risks; it’s a survival instinct.

Think also about the Daily Mail. Millions of people read it every day and love it. However, the newspaper itself is “preaching to the choir” – in other words, it publishes views and information which matches the opinion of the readers. The millions of people who hate the Daily Mail, almost certainly never read it. In reality, they cannot possibly know what the newspaper contains or what it says, yet they know they are vehemently opposed to its viewpoint, so they avoid it.

Here’s the problem. If you are a fan of Donald Trump information provided by one of his detractors might actually be very useful to you. But your confirmation bias prevents you from gaining full access to that information. Similarly, if you hate the Daily Mail, you will never read the excellent health coverage, for instance, which could save your life.

A recent analysis of the kind of information we choose to read shows that we avoid material that we are unlikely to agree with. In fact, if you disagree with what I am saying you probably haven’t read this far. The researchers show that we are highly adept at diverting our attention towards information that confirms our pre-existing views and away from information that is not aligned with our thinking. So, people who are overweight might avoid seeing the calorific value on a food label if they do not believe there is a link between calorie intake and obesity. These individuals might claim, for instance, that their issue is “glandular”.

You can see this across the Internet too. The search engine “experts” who talk about a “duplicate content penalty” and often make money from helping companies overcome it, are unable to pay attention to the information from the search engines that say this penalty is a myth (as explained by Google themselves in this video and in more detail in this help file). You could also be one of the people who is convinced of the value of online video, in spite of research that suggests that video has little value for online businesses.

One of the authors of the research analysis, George Lowenstein, put it this way, “people often avoid information that could help them to make better decisions if they think the information might be painful to receive. Bad teachers, for example, could benefit from feedback from students but are much less likely to pore over teaching ratings than skilled teachers.”

There are several psychological reasons why we seek out information that agrees with our own perspective or avoid material that clashes with our viewpoint. Alternative views to our own threaten our sense of self. We need a stable sense of self to operate effectively day-to-day. If our view of ourself is altered, we do not know how to cope with particular situations as we don’t know how “we” would react. So, we continually seek out information that confirms our sense of self. That’s why we have confirmation bias; it helps us reinforce our view of ourselves.

Another reason why we avoid information that is divergent from our own thinking is that it interrupts our categorisation of things around us. Our brains depend upon categorising things so that we can operate effectively with the world around us. We build up “schemas” and “prototypes” of myriads of objects and processes so that we can easily function without having to learn about every single thing we encounter each time we see something new. You know what a table is, even if you have never encountered a three-legged table made of pewter with a hole in the middle. You just “know” it is a table, instantly. If information challenges our views of the world around us, it interrupts all those schemas and prototypes you have in your head, making life tougher than normal.

The result of all this is avoidance of information that takes us away from our own reality, our own normal.

So, how can you deliberately avoid vital information on the Internet? That’s easy. Just follow these rules:

  1. Never read anything from a publication you think might be politically different to your own perspective
  2. Stick to reading information from the handful of trusted sources you have always used
  3. Confirm your existing beliefs by only connecting with people who share the same beliefs as you
  4. Only follow people on Twitter who Tweet the kind of things you would say
  5. Only join membership sites that have people just like you inside.

It’s really easy to avoid information. But that means it is also really easy to avoid progress.

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One Response to How to deliberately avoid vital information

  1. Cliff Peat 23rd March 2017 at 10:26 am #

    I read your article because of a twitter link from Robert Clay (@marketingwizdom) – and of course, you describe very closely my own sources of information and comfort zones!

    The issue is one of time resource. It takes only a few minutes \”dip\” into the Daily Mail online hissing viper nest to confirm the validity of the bias (just have). It takes much longer to review their take on an EU story and compare with the spectrum of news and opinion available and then decide who to believe and one\’s own thoughts on the matter (just haven\’t the time).

    Anyway, the headline to you blog attracted me as I am 48% the way through \”Thinking, fast and slow\” and your thesis falls straight into \”system 1\” brain thinking – but now I see you are a psychologist so you already know that:)

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