Nat Hum Behav 4, 14–19 (2020).
Immense amounts of information are now accessible to people, including information that bears on their past, present and future. An important research challenge is to determine how people decide to seek or avoid information. Here we propose a framework of information-seeking that aims to integrate the diverse motives that drive information-seeking and its avoidance. Our framework rests on the idea that information can alter people’s action, affect and cognition in both positive and negative ways. The suggestion is that people assess these influences and integrate them into a calculation of the value of information that leads to information-seeking or avoidance. The theory offers a framework for characterizing and quantifying individual differences in information-seeking, which we hypothesize may also be diagnostic of mental health. We consider biases that can lead to both insufficient and excessive information-seeking. We also discuss how the framework can help government agencies to assess the welfare effects of mandatory information disclosure.
It is increasingly possible for people to obtain information that bears on their future prospects, in terms of health, finance and even romance. It is also increasingly possible for them to obtain information about the past, the present and the future, whether or not that information bears on their personal lives. In principle, people’s decisions about whether to seek or avoid information should depend on some integration of instrumental value, hedonic value and cognitive value. But various biases can lead to both insufficient and excessive information-seeking. Individual differences in information-seeking may reflect different levels of susceptibility to those biases, as well as varying emphasis on instrumental, hedonic and cognitive utility. Such differences may also be diagnostic of mental health.
Whether positive or negative, the value of information bears directly on significant decisions of government agencies, which are often charged with calculating the welfare effects of mandatory disclosure and which have long struggled with that task. Our hope is that the integrative framework of information-seeking motives offered here will facilitate these goals and promote future research in this important domain.