Research & Insights

How Contemplation Leads People to Take Their Heads Out of the Sand

When it comes to learning about potential health risks, many people avoid knowledge like the plague, preferring to remain ignorant about changes that might save them both money and their lives. However, research suggests that asking people to contemplate the pros and cons of avoiding information can help them overcome resistance and even lead to positive changes.

Published in the July 2013 issue of Psychological Science, social psychologists Dr. Jennifer Howell and Dr. James Shepperd at the University of Florida describe a study that used three experiments with hundreds of participants to examine the effectiveness of contemplation on reducing information avoidance.

In all three experiments, participants were met by a researcher dressed in medical scrubs. The researcher sat them down at a station and informed them that they were participating in a study in collaboration with the university hospital. The researcher then left the room and had the participants watch an informational video on a disease, either Type 2 diabetes (study 1), cardiovascular disease (study 2), or a fake disease called (TAA) deficiency (study 3).

“The video(s) included a series of health images (e.g., doctors, patients, figures from medical pamphlets) and a recorded voice explaining the causes and symptoms… and the typical treatment of the disease,” explain the researchers. After, the participants completed a risk test for the disease, and then saw a message on their screen informing them that the computer had calculated their risk.

Participants were then asked if they would like to learn their risk for the disease. To measure the effects of contemplation, some participants took a survey before they made their choice, and others took it after.

The survey prompted participants to contemplate the pros and cons of finding out their risk for the disease to see whether the act of contemplation would reduce information avoidance of risk for the disease. For example, in the first study, the survey “prompted reflection on the cognitive, affective, and behavioral consequences of learning that one is at high risk for Type 2 diabetes…The survey included items such as ‘Learning that I am at high risk for diabetes would be distressing’ and ‘I would regret not learning my risk for diabetes,’ to which participants responded using scales ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).”

In all three studies, the researchers found that the process of contemplation reduced avoidance. In the first two experiments, participants who took the survey before making a decision were less likely to avoid learning their health risk than those who took it after.

The researchers suggest that “contemplation directs people toward rational decision making…When prompted to consider their own cognitive processes, people can switch from intuitive to analytical decision making which allows them to override their gut feelings in favor of quantifiably superior decisions.”

Interestingly, in the third study, TAA (the fake disease) was described as either treatable or un-treatable. When described as un-treatable, contemplation had no effect on participants.

“People avoid learning such information when it might threaten a cherished belief, produce unwanted affect, or obligate undesired behavior,” explain the researchers. “Presumably, interventions that reduce the importance of these threats should reduce information avoidance.”

If contemplation moves people to rational consideration of the issue at hand, it can lead people to make better decisions that, in this case, can save their lives.

Psychological Science

Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd, University of Florida

Posted: September 7, 2015
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