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When We Are Motivated to Not Know

When We Are Motivated to Not KnowSelf-restraint is sometimes hard to come by during the holidays, be it holding the line on the second piece of pecan pie or having the financial discipline to not exceed a credit line.

In a new study, researchers from the UK suggest the tendency avoid information that may make a person feel guilty about a certain behavior — and then perhaps not perform the behavior — is a case of motivated inattention.

Psychologists at the University of Sheffield believe this burying our heads in the sand instead of trying to meet our targets this month is completely understandable — in fact we are motivated to do so.

Dr. Thomas Webb, from the university’s Department of Psychology, is the lead researcher on a project looking at the effect that monitoring progress can have when striving to achieve a goal.

His research suggests that despite evidence that monitoring can help people to reach their targets, like regularly stepping on the scales when trying to drop a few pounds, there are times when individuals intentionally avoid such information.

“There will be plenty of us over the Christmas period who will not check our bank balance or look at the calories on the back of the box of mince pies despite us wanting to be in control of our money or lose weight ,” said Webb.

“The project proposes that there is an ‘ostrich problem’ such that people bury their heads in the sand.”

Although there may be practical reasons why people do not monitor their progress (for example, sometimes we can find the information too difficult to interpret, such as complicated nutrition labels or cryptic energy bills), Webb said that research into the ostrich problem suggests that there are also motivated reasons for avoiding information as well.

“The ostrich problem is the idea that there are times when people would rather not know how they’re doing,” he said.

“Avoiding monitoring may allow people to escape from negative feelings associated with an accurate appraisal of progress. For example, people might not want to know how much money they have spent or what their partner thinks of their social skills. We call this motivated inattention.”

Webb said promoting lasting changes in people’s behavior was one of the most significant challenges facing science and society.

His four-year project — which ends in 2015 and has been funded by the European Research Council (ERC) — seeks to understand why people avoid monitoring their goal progress and, by so doing, find ways to promote monitoring and help people to achieve their goals.

Source: University of Sheffield

When We Are Motivated to Not Know

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). When We Are Motivated to Not Know. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 18 Dec 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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