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Study: People choose to learn about health, world news based on feelings

Study: People choose to learn about health, world news based on feelings
Information-seeking may be governed by effects of what is learned on personal feelings, according to new research. File Photo by George Dolgikh/Shutterstock

Dec. 3 (UPI) -- People choose whether to seek or avoid information about their health, finances and personal traits based on how they think it will make them feel and how useful it is, a study published Friday by the journal Nature Communications found.

Based on an analysis of more than 500 participants, most people fall into one of three "information-seeking" categories.

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These are people who consider the impact of information on their feelings, those that consider how useful information will be for making decisions and those that mostly seek information about issues they think about often, the researchers said.

The information people decide to expose themselves to has implications for their health, financial status and relationships.

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By better understanding why people choose to get informed, researchers, educators and mental health professionals may be able to develop ways to convince people to educate themselves on certain issues, the researchers said.

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"Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals, [including] everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy," study co-author Tali Sharot said in a press release.

"We wanted to find out: How do people decide what they want to know? And why do some people actively seek out information," said Sharot, a professor of psychology and language sciences at University College London in England.

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This includes information about controversial and potentially troubling topics such as COVID-19, financial inequality and climate change, she said.

A study published in 2019 by the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty found that roughly half of adults surveyed wanted to know if they had a genetic predisposition to cancer, while the remainder did not.

Similarly, half of the participants in this earlier study wanted to know the estimated global temperature in 2100 while the rest did not.

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The authors of this earlier paper wrote that their findings that information, and the behavioral changes produced by it, can affect "people's experienced well-being."

For the new study, Sharot and her colleagues conducted five experiments with 543 participants to learn what factors influence information-seeking.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked how much they would like to know about health information, such as whether they had an Alzheimer's risk gene or a gene conferring a strong immune system.

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In another experiment, participants were asked whether they wanted to see financial information, such as exchange rates or what income percentile they fall into.

And, in another one, they were asked whether they would like to learn how their family and friends rate them on traits such as intelligence and laziness.

Following these experiments, participants were asked how useful they thought the information would be, how they expected it would make them feel and how often they thought about each subject matter in question.

Participants chose to seek information based on three factors: expected utility, emotional impact and whether it was relevant to things they thought of often, the data showed.

This three-factor model best explained decisions to seek or avoid information compared with a range of other alternative models tested, the researchers said.

Some participants repeated the experiments a couple of times, months apart, and their specific tendencies remained relatively stable, suggesting that what drives each person to seek information is "trait-like," according to the researchers.

In two experiments, participants also filled out a questionnaire to gauge their general mental health.

When participants sought information about their own traits, those who mostly wanted to know about traits they thought about often reported better mental health, researchers said.

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"By understanding people's motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information," study co-author Christopher Kelly said in a press release.

"At the moment policymakers overlook the impact of information on people's emotions or ability to understand the world around them and focus only on whether information can guide decisions," said Kelly, a doctoral student at University College London.

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