Don’t tell me ’cause it hurts

English: Uncooked bulgur wheat

Bulgur wheat: tasty, calorific or both?

It is often taken for granted that more information – or at least more well-designed, easily understandable information – will always be welcome. So in the UK, traffic light diagrams representing nasty sugars and fats is increasingly plastered across food products. But do most people want to know?

In a very preliminary first draft of a paper* on what they call “Strategic Self-Ignorance”, researchers Linda Thunstrom, Jonas Nordstrom, Jason Shogren, and Mariah Ehmke describe an experiment to find out. They offer some lucky participants a choice of lunchtime meals: chicken and bulgur or roast beef and glass noodles. Before choosing a meal, participants had to pick one of two folded sheets of paper: one of which contained calorie information. The idea was to make it costless to access information about the meal before making a choice. Basically, if you were a lucky lunchtime diner, you might as well pick up the paper containing calorie information, even if you weren’t interested in it.

[In case you're wondering, the roast beef and noodles had 490 calories, compared to 900 in the chicken and bulgur. Who knew? I thought chicken and bulgur sounded like the healthy option.]

According to this preliminary draft, the majority of lucky lunchtime diners picked up the piece of paper containing no calorie information – preferring not to know. As you might expect, people were more likely to ignore information if they expected the meal to be tasty.

We already know that information needs to be easily accessible and digestible for people to be able to use it to make decisions. But here’s another problem: giving people the option of more information may not work – particularly where there is a conflict between short-term gratification (tasty chicken) and long-term health (heart attacks et al.). It’s almost as if the conflict is so painful that some people would prefer to avoid it: and not knowing for sure that there is a conflict at all is a good way of doing just that.

The preliminary draft of “Strategic Self-Ignorance” is here.

*On the front of the paper, it says “PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE!”. I am strategically ignoring this because the study is just too interesting. Sorry. I hope my insertion of the words “preliminary” and “draft” across the post makes up for this.

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