Friday, August 22, 2014

Information Aversion

In II Chronicles 18, the kings of Israel and Judah, Ahab and Jehoshaphat, make an alliance to go to war together.  Before they march out, though, Jehoshaphat makes a request: "Inquire first for the word of the Lord."  Ahab "gathered the prophets together, four hundred of them" and they unanimously proclaim that victory is at hand. Jehoshaphat though is not fully convinced: "Is there not here another prophet of whom we may inquire?".  Grudgingly, Ahab admits "There is one, Micaiah ben Imlah...but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil."

Ahab is suffering from information aversion - he is strongly motivated not to know, indeed he is willing to pay a price to ignore, what Micaiah may be going to tell him.  In Azimuth today, John Baez has a great post on some modern research on this topic, and its implications for climate change.  It begins:

Why do ostriches stick their heads under the sand when they’re scared?

They don’t. So why do people say they do? A Roman named Pliny the Elder might be partially to blame. He wrote that ostriches “imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed.”

That would be silly—birds aren’t that dumb. But people will actually pay to avoid learning unpleasant facts. It seems irrational to avoid information that could be useful. But people do it...
Read the rest here

Photo: Ostrich, mouth open CC BY 3.0
Donarreiskoffer - Own work