Do people want bad news even if it will help them?

Do people want bad news even if it will help them?

If you could choose to hear the bad news, would you?

Even when it regards their personal lives (health, finances, relationships…), people often decide that they don’t actually want to know. Some people can spend a lot of time and effort searching for information, but once it’s within their reach, they choose to ignore or distort it if it’s bad news. However, we’ve also read studies stating that others may pick a definite but negative outcome over an uncertain one.

So, do we actually want to hear the bad news even if it may be helpful to us? And if so, how can we react better?

The Not Knowing

Uncertainty is inevitable, at least at some point in our lives. Many of us are feeling it right now, as we experience this global pandemic and an uncertain future. As you can imagine or even relate to, this feeling of not knowing often causes a lot of stress. When faced with an uncertain situation, you may find yourself constantly thinking about every possible outcome, even though we know this stresses people out.

Research suggests that uncertainty actually caused more stress than a definite painful outcome. This study involved 45 participants who played a computer game during which they had to guess if there was a snake under a rock they then had to turn over. When there was a snake, they received a painful electric shock. The game continuously changed to keep a level of uncertainty throughout. A few participants were told which rocks were hiding a snake and therefore, knew beforehand when they would receive an electric shock. The results surprisingly found that participants who were told that they had a 50% chance of receiving a painful electric shock had higher stress levels than those who were told there was a 100% chance of being shocked. This showed that people become stressed in times of uncertainty because they are unable to prepare for the potential outcome.

This demonstrates how we would rather know the bad news; in this case, receive a painful shock, than be left in the dark about our fate whilst turning over a rock. However, some researchers believe that people would actually choose to ignore bad news even if it may help them. Again, this uncertainty of not knowing a definite outcome comes into play; however, many decide to stay unaware.

Choosing to Ignore

Nowadays, information is everywhere. Just pick up your phone and you’ll be able to find out about anything you want. However, is this luxury of easily accessible information really something we desire?

Research suggests that, when negative information regarding one’s finances, personal characteristics, or health, are freely available, people often prefer to ignore it. These three domains are considered to be psychologically and materially consequential and can be prioritised differently depending on the individual.

This concept is actually very well-known within behavioural economics, and is referred to as information avoidance. Despite the way it sounds, information avoidance isn’t always a bad thing, and shouldn’t be considered a reflection of ignorance. Reasons for information avoidance can be personal to each individual and their specific circumstance, however, it is commonly related to anxiety or strategy. You may avoid certain information because you know it will cause anxiety and stress, and therefore not knowing and being able to stay optimistic may seem like the best option. The strategic point of view may be especially useful if the information could possibly throw you off your game. Staying unaware can help keep you motivated as there won’t be anything to convince you to do otherwise.

Reacting to Bad News

As the world deals with this global pandemic, we are constantly waiting for news. Whether this is regarding the progress on a vaccine or how much longer we’re staying in lockdown, most of the news nowadays has a negative aspect to it. However, it is ultimately up to us to decide how we let this news impact our lives and mindset. If we choose to get rid of all uncertainty and accept the information we’re given, it’s important to learn how to handle the bad news.

When we hear something shocking or upsetting, we must first remember to take a deep breath and process the information. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and make rash decisions but the consequences of this are often negative. Instead, lay out all the facts and take some time to thoroughly comprehend the situation. Once you have a better understanding of the information and how it will negatively impact you, it’s time to construct a plan. Sometimes, it’s inevitable to experience bad news and go through a rough patch, but what’s important is how you let these situations influence you.

A great way to get ahead of bad news is to develop a challenge mindset. This will change your point of view and help you interpret any situation as a challenge, instead of a threat. Especially now, when we’re faced with so much negative news that can make us feel demotivated, we must find ways to use it to our advantage. For example, our current lockdown; are you being as productive as you want to be? What purpose are your thoughts serving? Are your thoughts helpful? Whilst there isn’t anything we can do about the government guidelines, what we spend our time and energy doing and thinking about is entirely our decision. Work on developing new skills or improving the ones you already possess if you can. However, please remember that this is not a productivity contest – the goal here is simply to try to make the most of a bad situation.

Final thoughts

Choosing to ignore information that is freely available is more common than we may think. Some people may want to reduce the stress of not knowing by finding the information they need. Others may feel that the stress potentially linked to the knowledge they don’t yet have is too much to handle. We feel that the best way to prepare for these situations is to change your mindset to a challenge one. That way, regardless of your decision, you’re ready to handle anything! 

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