Against the grain: Why are you only hearing what you want to?

Dorothy Cotton
August 09, 2018
By
There’s nothing more annoying than running into a bunch of information that contradicts something you always believed, you always knew, you were sure about.1 Fortunately (or not... ) it appears that most of us are quite capable of avoiding information if we think it is not going to tell us what we want to hear. How can otherwise sensible people believe that cutting taxes creates new jobs or that autism is caused by vaccinations?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you believe, you feel very strongly that something is true. Let’s take a timely issue. Are you one of the many (dare I say most?) who know, based on your experience and what the media tells you, that people with mental illnesses are:

(a)    more likely to be violent/dangerous/aggressive, and that
(b)    de-escalation just does not work with people who are really mentally ill — like people with psychoses?

I could refer you to piles of research and literature that contradicts these viewpoints — but people have likely already pointed you that way. You do not buy it. In fact, you are not even going to look at the data. What’s with that?

Well, I am not going to try to present the data here (partly because I know you will not read the sources I refer you to) and I am not going to try to convince you that you are wrong. I am going to try to shed a little light on why you are being so contrary.

Alas, if you are like most people, then the thing to do when there is the possibility that you might be confronted with information that disputes your view of things is to put a bag on your head and pretend the information does not exist. Don’t even look at it. Just to be clear: I am not recommending this strategy. But the fact is that’s what most of us do.

If you are left-leaning, you read left-leaning media and avoid the stuff to the right (and vice versa). The fact is we pay attention or seek out information that confirms what we already think, and we avoid information that might conflict with what we think — or might cause us to act in such a way that conflicts with our “intuition.”

We all do this. We’d rather not see the calorie count on a dessert we really want because if we did, we would not order the dessert — and we really want that dessert. We’d rather not see the odds of our team winning or losing (if the odds are bad) because we might end up feeling pressured to bet against our team. We’d rather not know if our partner is cheating. We’d rather not have the medical test if it might tell us we have some horrible disease. Rather than change our point of view to something less intuitive, we’d rather just not know.

It’s a curious thing. We are not talking about considering new information and deciding we do not agree. We are talking about actively making sure we do not even come in contact with the information. To make matters worse, we are most likely to actively avoid information at the very times we most need that information. We avoid information when a decision has yet to be made, and we avoid information when situations are most unclear.  

Maybe this accounts for why some very unlikely politicians have been elected recently. If you really dislike the people in power and have decided that you are “voting for change,” you may well not want to be faced with the fact that the “change” party really makes no sense or has weird policies you do not agree with. Better just to believe what they say and leave it at that.

Avoiding information is of course impossible sometimes. Maybe they put the number of calories in big numbers right beside the description of the decadent chocolate mocha surprise cake with whipped cream. You saw it even though you didn’t want to. The curious thing is that once you have seen the information, you do pay attention to it. No cake for you!

Perhaps it is easier to avoid it than to ignore it. Maybe there is something to be said for mandatory training, especially when you are sure it is a waste of time.

Did I mention that people with mental illnesses are not more violent and that you can de-escalate people who are psychotic?   

1. Woolley, K., & Risen, J. L. (2018). Closing your eyes to follow your heart: Avoiding information to protect a strong intuitive preference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(2), 230-245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000100


Dr. Dorothy Cotton is Blue Line’s psychology columnist. She can be contacted at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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