Some people don’t want to know if they are sick, so they avoid medical screening or even calling the doctor’s office for test results. But health care providers can break down that resistance by having patients focus on what they value most, rather than the fear of a life-threatening disease, according to researchers.
“If you can get people to refocus their attention from a threat to their overall sense of well-being, they are less likely to avoid threatening information,” said University of Florida doctoral student Jennifer L. Howell.
In a study she conducted with her colleague James A. Shepperd, Ph.D., Howell found that people who can focus on what is most important to them are more likely to face a medical screening, even if it means undertaking onerous treatment and or finding out the disease is incurable and uncontrollable.
The researchers conducted three studies, each with about 100 students. In all three studies, they asked the participants to think of a trait they valued, such as honesty, compassion, and friendliness. Participants then wrote either about how they demonstrated the trait — expressing self-affirmation — or how a friend demonstrated the trait.
Next participants watched a video about a fictional disorder called thioamine acetlyase (TAA) deficiency, which impairs the body’s ability to process nutrients and can lead to severe medical complications. They then completed an online risk calculator, deciding whether to find out their risk of getting the disease.
In the first study, participants who wrote self-affirming essays were more likely to learn their risk than those who wrote non-affirming essays about their friends.
In the second study, participants were told that the followup examination for those at high risk for TAA deficiency was either easy or onerous. Study participants who did not participate in self-affirmation avoided learning their risk when they thought it might necessitate a difficult, as compared to an easy, followup. However, those who were self-affirmed showed little avoidance regardless of the difficulty of followup, according to researchers.
In the third study, participants learned either that TAA could be managed with a pill or that there was no effective treatment. Again, the non-affirmed group avoided learning their risk almost twice as often when hearing they had no control over the illness. Affirmed participants were unlikely to avoid the news, regardless of the possibility of treatment.
The researchers acknowledge it’s sometimes rational to choose not to know about an incurable disease. “But when it is important to prepare for negative events — getting your affairs in order, finding the coping resources you’ll need,” Howell said, “going through with that screening might be wise.”
The study’s findings will appear in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.