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Cassandra’s Regret: The Psychology of Not Wanting to  Know

Friday, May 26, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Do you want to know the future? You may want to say it all depends on which aspects of your future. Typically, while we seek information routinely to make decisions in our day-to-day lives, we don’t always want to know for sure what will happen in our futures. These researchers remind us about the story of Cassandra in Greek mythology.

“According to Greek mythology, Apollo granted Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, the power of foreseeing the future. Yet after his failed attempt to seduce her, he placed a curse on her so that her prophecies would never be believed. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy, the death of her father, the hour of her own death, and the name of her murderer. To helplessly watch the approach of future horrors became a source of endless pain, suffering, and regret of her terrible solitary knowledge.”

They also invoke Bob Dylan’s classic line from the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,

“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”

They then summarize the research which shows us that people do not often want to know about specific results of genetic testing, or HIV tests, or even whether they are likely to become demented. What the researchers are most interested in, however, is what they call “deliberate ignorance”.

“We use the term deliberate ignorance to refer to the willful decision not to know, as opposed to the inability to access information or disinterest in the question. Deliberate ignorance can result from inaction, that is, not searching for diagnostic information, or from action, such as refusing information that someone else offers.”

In other words, when you actively choose not to know, you are willfully choosing to remain deliberately ignorant which is very different, according to the researchers, than simply not knowing—i.e., being ignorant. So the researchers did two different experiments (one in Germany and one in Spain (both with non-student populations) to see how common deliberate ignorance was and to investigate whether there was a pattern to choices to remain deliberately ignorant.

In Germany, they asked participants five positive questions and five negative questions — to ascertain in which situations the individual would choose deliberate ignorance. Here is how their sample (of more than 900 participants) responded:

Negative events:

Would you want to know today when your partner will die? No: 89.5%.

Would you want to know today from what cause your partner will die? No: 90.4%.

Would you want to know today when you will die? No: 87.7%.

Would you want to know today from what cause you will die? No: 87.3%.

Assume you are newly married. Would you want to know today whether your marriage will eventually end in divorce or not? No: 86.5%.

Positive events:

Assume you video-recorded a soccer world-champion game because you could not watch it live. While you are watching the recording, a friend enters who has already watched the game. Would you want to know from the friend how it ended (as opposed to asking not to tell)? No: 76.9%.

Would you want to know in advance what you are getting for Christmas? No: 59.6%.

Would you like to know whether there is life after death? No: 56.9%.

Assume you bought a blue sapphire for 2,000 euros during your vacation in Sri Lanka. The dealer assured you that the sapphire is genuine. Back home, you can check this, but you have no chance of lodging a complaint or returning the stone. A test would cost 50 euros. Would you have the sapphire tested to be sure whether it is genuine or not? No: 48.6%.

Assume you/your partner is pregnant. The gender of the child can be reliably determined by ultrasound. Would you want to know the gender of your child before birth? No: 40.3%.

The researchers saw this response pattern as showing “widespread deliberate ignorance” for both negative events and for positive events. They thought this inconsistent with the human desire to avoid uncertainty so they went to Spain to see if things were different there. They found the same patterns in Spain.

The researchers conclude it is common for people to choose to remain “deliberately ignorant” to avoid negative news but also to maintain the positive emotions of surprise and suspense surrounding personally important events. Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was unable to make the choice to remain deliberately ignorant. That is not the case for us—as is seen in the choices many of the German and Spanish citizens made to remain deliberately ignorant.

Additionally, the researchers found that the closer in age the participants were to the likelihood of a negative event happening (e.g., divorce, death of a partner, old-age health problems), the more likely they were to choose deliberate ignorance.

There was also an odd (and potentially useful) finding in this study. One of the questions researchers asked was what kind of insurance policies the participants had purchased. What they found was those that had purchased policies that were not mandated by the country or immediate area in which they lived, were slightly more likely to choose deliberate ignorance for future events.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a good point to remember and to educate jurors on in opening statement. There are times we simply do not want to know (whether about something positive or something negative) and so we make a choice. We have all done this and it allows us to be happier before negative things happen and to enjoy the surprise inherent in good things happening. That choice does not mean we have failed to do something, it simply means we are doing what (apparently) the majority of people do and choosing not to know.

Gigerenzer G, & Garcia-Retamero R (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124 (2), 179-196 PMID: 28221086

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