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Behavioral Obligation and Information Avoidance

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Annals of Behavioral Medicine



Although knowledge can be powerful and bring a variety of important benefits, people often opt to remain ignorant.


We propose that people are particularly inclined to remain ignorant when learning information could obligate undesirable behavior.


In three studies, participants completed an online risk calculator and then learned that receiving high-risk feedback from the calculator would obligate them to engage in a behavior that was either highly undesirable (e.g., undergoing a cervical exam and taking medication for the rest of their life) or only slightly undesirable (e.g., having their cheek swabbed and taking medication for 2 weeks). We then offered participants the opportunity to receive risk feedback from the calculator.


Across all studies, participants more often avoided feedback when it could obligate highly undesirable behavior compared with mildly undesirable behavior.


People decline learning their risk information more often when doing so obligates undesirable behavior in response.

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Fig. 1


  1. Although it would have been preferable to examine autonomy concerns among participants who actually completed the decision task, these items were not included in the experiment.


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We thank Kate Sweeny and three anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this manuscript. This article is based on work supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship awarded to Jennifer L. Howell, under grant no. DGE-0802270, and by an Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement between James A. Shepperd and the National Cancer Institute.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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Correspondence to Jennifer L. Howell M.S..

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Howell, J.L., Shepperd, J.A. Behavioral Obligation and Information Avoidance. ann. behav. med. 45, 258–263 (2013).

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