Each one of us falls into one of three information-seeking ‘personalities’

Knowing what people want to know, and why, can go a long way towards designing public information campaigns. However, it’s easier said than done. New research comes to shed some light on the topic, reporting on the criteria people rely on when deciding to get informed on a topic, or not.

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According to the findings, at least in matters regarding to their health, finances, and personal traits, people, in general, rely on one of three criteria: the emotional reaction they assume they will have when presented with that information, how useful they consider said information will be to them, and whether or not it pertains to something that they think about often. The team says each person falls into one of these three “information-seeking types”, and that they don’t tend to change them over time.

Knowing, why?

“Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals. This includes everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy. We wanted to find out: how do people decide what they want to know?” says Professor Tali Sharot from the University College London (UCL) Psychology & Language Sciences, co-lead author of the study. “And why do some people actively seek out information, for example about COVID vaccines, financial inequality and climate change, and others don’t?”

“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships. By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”

The study pools together data the researchers obtained over the course of five experiments with 543 research participants.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to rate how much they would like to know about a certain topic related to their health — for example, whether they had a gene that put them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or one that strengthened their immune system. Another experiment followed the same pattern but substituted financial information (for example, what income percentile they fall into) in lieu of personal health. A third asked them to rate how much they would like to know where their family and friends rated them on personal traits such as intelligence or laziness.

Later on, they were asked how useful they thought the information would be, how they expected to feel upon receiving the info, and how often they thought about the subject matter of each experiment.

Based on their responses during these five experiments, the team explains that people tend to seek out information based predominantly on one of the three factors — expected utility, emotional impact, and relevance to their interests. They add that the three-factor model they establish could be used to more accurately predict a participant’s choices to seek or refuse information compared to a range of other models they tested.

Some of the participants also repeated this series of experiments several times, at intervals of a few months. Based on their responses over time, the team explains that people tend to routinely prioritize one of the three motives over the others, and they tend to stick to that one motive over time and across topics. This, they argue, suggests that our motivators in this regard are ‘trait-like’.

These traits do have a direct impact on our lives; the first, obviously, is that they drive us towards and away from certain topics and pieces of data. But they also have a bearing on our wellbeing. In two of the five experiments, participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire that estimated their general mental health. The team explains that participants who wanted to know more about traits they often thought about showed more signs of positive mental health when seeking out information about their own traits.

“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. For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message,” says PhD student Christopher Kelly from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences a, co-lead author of the study.

“The research can also help policy makers decide whether information, for instance on food labels, needs to be disclosed, by describing how to fully assess the impact of information on welfare. At the moment policy-makers 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.”

The paper “Individual differences in information-seeking” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

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