Kaitlin Woolley, Cornell University – Information Avoidance

When making a decision, do you follow your heart, or your head?

Kaitlin Woolley, assistant professor of marketing at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University, looks into how information avoidance can influence how you make your decisions.

Professor Woolley studies consumer motivation and goal pursuit, with a focus on understanding what consumers value when pursuing their goals and how to use this to increase goal persistence. She also researches the influence of goal conflict on consumer choice, and the role food consumption plays in social connection. Woolley’s research has been published in journals and book chapters, including Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It has been featured in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, NPR, and Psychology Today.

At Johnson, Professor Woolley teaches the core Marketing course and the Consumer Behavior course. Woolley earned a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in psychology from Cornell University. She earned an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her PhD is in Behavioral Science from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Information Avoidance

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People avoid tempting information and distractions to make it easier to follow their goals. Dieters avoid dessert menus to help stick with their diet, and writers on a deadline (try to) avoid social media. Information avoidance in these situations is a smart strategy that helps people accomplish their goals.

But does the opposite also occur? Do people avoid information to make it easier to enact a temptation or go with their gut reaction? Our research, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found this is indeed the case.

We examined situations when a strong intuitive desire conflicts with a more reasoned response. Metaphorically speaking, we examined situations when following one’s heart is complicated by concerns of the head.

We find that in these situations, people intentionally avoid learning decision relevant information in order to make it easier to follow their intuitive preference. For example, they avoid learning the calories in cake to make it easier to order dessert, and they avoid learning the payout of an emotionally unappealing, but financially advantageous, investment in order to turn down the investment.

Despite avoiding this information, people used this information when it was provided: they were less likely to order cake at higher calorie counts and were more likely to accept investments at higher payout amounts.  

This information avoidance occurs in part because people recognize that receiving information could influence their decision away from their intuitive preference, and at some level, they just want to follow their heart.

Our research broadens the view of information avoidance to include the goal of protecting a preference, specifically, protecting an intuitive preference or gut feeling from deliberative reasoning.. We further suggest people may be making a mistake – either avoiding information they would use or using information they would prefer to avoid.

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