The Cassandra Effect: When ignorance is cherished


We begin with some questions:

  • Suppose you were given the chance to know the date when your closest loved one would die. Would you want to know?
  • What about the chance to know the cause of your now-healthy loved one’s death?
  • How about the date of your own death?
  • The cause?
  • Would you want to know right after your marriage whether or not divorce would eventually follow?
  • Say you’re a big soccer fan who’s watching a video you’ve recorded of the big game and you don’t know the outcome. Then a friend who’s seen the game walks in. Do you ask her who won?
  • Do you want to know what’s in a wrapped Christmas present?
  • Do you want absolute knowledge of whether or not there’s an afterlife?
  • Say you were on vacation in Sri Lanka, famed for its gemstones, and you paid $2000 for what you were assured was a gem quality blue sapphire, and as steal at the price. When you got back home, would you be willing to shell out fifty bucks for an appraisal, knowing there was no way you’d get your money back if the stone turned out to be a fake?
  • And last, would you want to know the sex of your unborn child?

These where the questions posed to folks in Germany and Spain in a cross-cultural study examining the Cassandra Effect, the degree to which anticipation of future pain drives our choices.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the University of Granada found some interesting responses, via their report in the Psychological Review, Cassandra’s Regret: The Psychology of Not Wanting to Know [open access]:

Prevalence of deliberate ignorance concerning positive and negative events in two national quota samples in Germany [n=1,016] and Spain [n=1,002]. For instance, 89.5% of Germans and 90.5% of Spaniards would not want to know when their partner is going to die.

Prevalence of deliberate ignorance concerning positive and negative events in two national quota samples in Germany [n=1,016] and Spain [n=1,002]. For instance, 89.5% of Germans and 90.5% of Spaniards would not want to know when their partner is going to die.

More from the American Psychological Association, via Newswise:

Given the chance to see into the future, most people would rather not know what life has in store for them, even if they think those events could make them happy, according to new research [open access] published by the American Psychological Association.

“In Greek mythology, Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, had the power to foresee the future. But, she was also cursed and no one believed her prophecies,” said the study’s lead author, Gerd Gigerenzer, PhD, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. “In our study, we’ve found that people would rather decline the powers that made Cassandra famous, in an effort to forgo the suffering that knowing the future may cause, avoid regret and also maintain the enjoyment of suspense that pleasurable events provide.”

Two nationally representative studies involving more than 2,000 adults in Germany and Spain found that 85 to 90 percent of people would not want to know about upcoming negative events, and 40 to 70 percent preferred to remain ignorant of upcoming positive events. Only 1 percent of participants consistently wanted to know what the future held. The findings are published in the APA journal Psychological Review.

The researchers also found that people who prefer not to know the future are more risk averse and more frequently buy life and legal insurance than those who want to know the future. This suggests that those who choose to be ignorant anticipate regret, Gigerenzer said. The length of time until an event would occur also played a role: Deliberate ignorance was more likely the nearer the event. For example, older adults were less likely than younger adults to want to know when they or their partner would die, and the cause of death.

Participants were asked about a large range of potential events, both positive and negative. For example, they were asked if they wanted to know who won a soccer game they had planned to watch later, what they were getting for Christmas, whether there is life after death and if their marriage would eventually end in divorce. Finding out the sex of their unborn child was the only item in the survey where more people wanted to know than didn’t, with only 37 percent of participants saying they wouldn’t want to know.

Although people living in Germany and Spain vary in age, education and other important aspects, the pattern of deliberate ignorance was highly consistent across the two countries, according to the article, including its prevalence and predictability.

“Wanting to know appears to be the natural condition of humankind, and in no need of justification. People are not just invited but also often expected to participate in early detection for cancer screening or in regular health check-ups, to subject their unborn babies to dozens of prenatal genetic tests, or to use self-tracking health devices,” said Gigerenzer . “Not wanting to know appears counterintuitive and may raise eyebrows, but deliberate ignorance, as we’ve shown here, doesn’t just exist; it is a widespread state of mind.”

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