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February 2, 2017

Why you hide from the truth—and how to stop it

Daily Briefing

    It's natural to avoid information that may be stressful—such as your bank balance or your weight on the scale—but dealing with uncomfortable truths is easier if you use the right strategies, Elizabeth Bernstein reports for the Wall Street Journal.

    Willfully avoiding important information is a phenomenon researchers call "behavior information avoidance or strategic ignorance," Bernstein writes. And we all do it to avoid things we don't want to do, facts that may make us feel bad, or information that challenges our assumptions about ourselves.

    How to make stress useful

    James Shepperd, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida explained, "We want to think of ourselves as healthy and smart, people who make good decisions, so we resist information that challenges these beliefs." And people are more likely to avoid stressful information if they don't have the financial or psychological resources to deal with the information's consequences, Shepperd said.

    Building skills

    Shepperd's research suggests that if people work to increase their sense of control, they are less likely to avoid unpleasant information.

    For instance, in two 2012 studies, Shepperd and colleagues examined groups of undergraduate women and women between the ages of 35 and 79. All of the study participants completed a health inventory and were divided into three equal groups that:

    • Read a brochure about controllable predictors of breast cancer;
    • Read a brochure about uncontrollable predictors of breast cancer, such as genetics; or
    • Did not read a brochure.

    Next, women were given the option of learning their risk for breast cancer. Participants who read about controllable predictors of breast cancer were more likely than others to want to know their risk. Those women felt like they had more tools to avoid cancer, so they were more comfortable finding out their risk, Shepperd said.

    Why some people are better at achieving their goals

    Another way to better handle stressful information is to "spend some time thinking about what you really value in life," Bernstein writes. One 2012 study found that individuals who wrote essays describing the values and traits they found important and a time they acted upon those values were more likely than those who wrote on a neutral topic to want to know whether they were at high risk for a disease.

    Writing a personal essay "makes whatever threat is looming in front of you feel rather small and your resources to handle it seem larger," Shepperd said.

    And Lauren Griffin, director of external research for frank, an organization based at the University of Florida that aggregates academic research to drive social change , said just thinking about areas of your life that you can control may help you overcome your avoidance behaviors (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 1/30).

    Get more done—with less stress

    how to get more done with less stress

    Research shows that we spend 40 percent of our work time doing tasks that aren't actually important and don't advance our true priorities.

    In 15 minutes, our experts run through three practical strategies for transforming your approach to your schedule, improving your moment-to-moment focus, and better planning your workload so that you get more done—with less stress and effort.

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