Bad, Mad or Sad? Why Smart People Ignore Negative News…

“All men by nature desire to know” said Aristotle, but do we really?

Information is like food. We have a complex and sometimes unhealthy relationship with it — either gorging on it or resisting it. We gorge when it’s about others and resist when we think it will bring us distress, even if it leads to better outcomes for ourselves, our families or our firms.

In a study comparing information-seeking behaviour across ten different events, an overwhelming 85–90% of participants preferred not to know in advance about potential negative events eg divorce likelihood and the cause of death of themselves or their partner [1]. Understandable perhaps! However, denial carries consequences, especially for those in powerful leadership

People protect themselves from negativity like suits of armour, even for less severe information like uncomfortable feedback. The truth does hurt in many cases! However, denial carries consequences, especially for those in powerful positions who make critical health and welfare decisions for millions of people.

The tendency to avoid negative information is amplified in today’s uncertain world. Initially, many leaders denied the reality of a pandemic. Today, many more deny the impending recession and business implications. Deliberate avoidance of critical information impacts decisions and puts both lives and livelihoods at risk [2].

History shows that when leaders decide half-blind and half-informed, employees, clients and shareholders suffer. This is negligent. Today people also have zero pandemic experience yet make excruciating decisions - when to re-open, whether to furlough, who to prioritise for treatment. Moral motivations conflict with economic ones.

Why Do Smart People Neglect Negative News?

7 psychological concepts help to explain this decision-making phenomenon and why we tend to ignore information that we don't like or don't want to hear:

Messenger Effect:

We decide on information merit based on our perception of who is giving it - friend, foe or preferred politician. Haters tune out even if the message matters for the hater. Contrast pandemic responses by global leaders and their citizens in the US with New Zealand.

📝 Why? Because we prefer people who think, look and live like us. Leaders identify less with the unfamiliar messenger and devalue their message. Research shows that people dislike bearers of bad news. Punishment often swiftly follows. US Navy Captain Crozier demonstrates this, among a long line of other well-intentioned whistleblowers.

Cassandra Complex:

Throughout history, truth-tellers have been scorned and disbelieved, ridiculed for story-telling. Harry Markopolos tried to warn regulators and media about Madoff’s fictitious investments but was ignored. Millions of ordinary savers lost their retirement income as a result.

📝 Why? Because our vision is bounded by our current and preferred reality. When information conflicts with our personal experience, intuition or imagination, we just can’t envisage the future scenario and so, reject the information given. This is compounded if the messenger is in the out-group, like clever number-cruncher Markopolos.

Loss & Regret Aversion:

We are deeply loss-averse in our decision-making which unconsciously influences us to take the less attractive option [3]. This is rampant in business negotiations, politics and domestic life. We cannot bear to lose - financials, or face. We are magnetically drawn to loss.

📝 Why? The pain of loss looms larger than the joy of an equivalent gain. Losing €50 is more irritating than a €50 win is joyous. Regret aversion also makes denial and ignorance more likely as the dreaded event approaches eg exam results or salary review. The risk-averse individuals deliberately block out potential bad news and become morally deaf. Important signals and warnings get lost in the desire not to lose. Sunk costs amplify this.

Unrealistic Optimism:

We seek information that makes us feel good. Police, professors and parents delay the discomfort of giving bad news, underestimating statistical evidence. We drive fast, gamble and neglect check-ups.

📝 Why? Because we assume bad things don't affect us (eg illness, accidents, unemployment) and overweight the probability of positive outcomes. Sadly, many leaders surround themselves with employees who dodge giving bad news, fearing the consequences. Experts notoriously reject contrary feedback. But science consistently shows the majority of people believe themselves smarter than the average person! And better drivers, dancers and donors.

Temporal Discounting:

We procrastinate and don’t take important decisions to improve our future well-being. We discount the future and defer savings, don’t make a will, don't slash costs and don't resist immediate indulgence.

📝Why? Because we are present-biased and struggle to envisage our future selves, preferring immediate gratification. When evaluating trade-offs between future moments, we overweight imminent events and rewards [4]. But future intentions often fail to convert to action. Procrastination is king. In countries where the pandemic peak not been reached, reality is deferred. Consequently, lives are lost. In companies facing disruption, blame is placed externally and preventative action rarely taken in time.

Impact Bias:

We overestimate the intensity of our future emotional states. Studies show we predict greater emotional responses than are reported after the fact eg pleasure before holidays or misery after weight gain.

📝 Why? Because we anchor to our prediction that certain situations will be positive or negative based on our current reality. We fail to adjust for context and misconstrue unfamiliar events not experienced before eg prisons, pandemics or bankruptcy. This distorted belief accelerates our information-avoidance. The stock market is filled with business leaders who denied future industry disruption, making calamitous decisions for clients and shareholders. Facing reality and hearing bad news drives good decision-making.

Ostrich Effect:

We unconsciously ignore information that is perceived as negative or threatening. Patients decide not to have operations. Marital affairs are denied. Traders don’t sell losses quickly enough. There is no shortage of pessimism to ignore today. It is at its peak.

📝 Why? Because ignoring bad information is easier than the anxiety of receiving distressing information. We prefer the delusion. Once something is known, we cannot ‘unknow’ it. Ignorance is bliss after all! If I pretend it wont happen, maybe it wont. If I only look for counter-signals that confirm my wishful thinking about the future, I will feel much better, more comfortable and more reassured about the future. After all, it may not happen.

Steps to Limit Information-Avoidance

Six simple but scientifically-based approaches can help people both identify and prevent the information-avoidance blind-spots in themselves and others:

1. Increase your understanding about why you or others deny critical facts.

2. Calibrate your message for people’s varying appetite for negative news.

3. Prepare your response to extreme reactions from information-avoiders.

4. Counter the fact that uncertainty lead to decision paralysis and passivity.

5. Use this checklist to assess how you or others risk information avoidance.

6. Share this idea if you think it might be relevant for people in your network.

Avoiding information is understandable. Nobody likes bad news. But the impact on your life choices, and those of others, can be worse than intended. It is only in hindsight that the consequences of making decisions with incomplete information emerge. You wouldn’t expect it of a doctor or consultant so don’t expect it of yourself - or tolerate it in others.

The more negative the information, the more leaders must gorge on it. It could save your life, your company and importantly, that of many others.

References:

[1] Gigerenzer, G., & Garcia-Retamero, R. (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124(2), 179.

[2] Golman, R., Hagmann, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2017). Information avoidance. Journal of Economic Literature, 55(1), 96–135.

[3] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

[4] O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. American Economic Review, 89(1), 103–124.

positions who make critical health and welfare decisions.

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