It’s time to have a look in the anthropology file and learn a little bit about research on us humans. We live in an unprecedented “age of information” but, strangely enough, despite all the information out there, people make very little use of it. Those on diets, for example, often prefer not to look at the number of calories in a tasty dessert, people at high risk for a disease avoid screening tests that could give them a definite answer, and most people choose news sources that align with, rather than challenge, their political ideology.
In a paper published in the Journal of Economic Literature, Carnegie Mellon University researchers illustrate how people deliberately avoid information that threatens their happiness and well-being. They show that, while a simple failure to obtain information is the most clear-cut case of “information avoidance,” people have a wide range of other information-avoidance strategies. They’re also quite good at selectively directing their attention to information that confirms what they believe and at forgetting information they wish weren’t true.
Even when people can’t ignore information, they choose how to interpret it. Questionable evidence is often treated as believable when it confirms what someone wants to believe, as in the case of discredited research linking vaccines to autism. And evidence that meets the rigorous demands of science is often ignored if it goes against what people want to believe, as illustrated by the widespread dismissal of scientific evidence of climate change.
Despite its evident pitfalls and costs, information avoidance isn't always a mistake or a reflection of a lazy mind. People do it for a reason. If you don’t take that medical test, you can enjoy your life until your illness can't be ignored. An inflated sense of our own abilities can help us to pursue big and worthwhile goals, and not looking at our financial investments when markets are down may keep us from selling in a panic. Understanding when, why, and how people avoid information can help governments and firms alike reach their audiences effectively, without drowning them in unwanted messages.
And just how those messages are presented can make a big difference. In a paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from Stanford University tested whether the words used to describe vegetables affected their consumption. Does labeling carrots as “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” or green beans as “sweet sizzilin’ green beans and crispy shallots” make them more enticing?
The study was conducted in a large university cafeteria and data were collected each weekday for an autumn academic quarter. Each day, one vegetable was labeled in 1 of 4 ways: basic (e.g., beets, green beans or carrots); healthy restrictive (e.g., “lighter-choice beets with no added sugar," “light 'n' low-carb green beans and shallots” or “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing”); healthy positive (e.g., “high-antioxidant beets," “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” or “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots”); or indulgent (e.g., “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets," “sweet sizzilin' green beans and crispy shallots” or “twisted citrus-glazed carrots”).
And here’s the kicker. Although the labeling was changed, there were no changes in how the vegetables were prepared or served.
Indulgent labeling of the vegetables was the hands-down winner. Twenty-five percent more people selected those vegetables compared with basic labeling, 41% more people selected them over the healthy restrictive labeling and 35% more people selected them over the healthy positive labeling.
So, if you’re having trouble getting your kids to eat their vegetables, be sure to call those long beans “sweet sizzilin’ long beans!”