Spoiler alert: most people want to remain in the dark, finds study
Research showed most people prefer not to glimpse the future, whether for the results of a football match or to find out if their marriage will last
In the German study, just under 88% of participants said they did not want to know when they would die. Photograph: Jeffrey Blackler/Alamy
Whether anticipating good news or bad, it turns out that most people would prefer to remain in the dark than sneak a glimpse of the future.
According to research involving more than 2,000 participants, more than 85% would not want to know if their marriage would end in divorce, while a similar proportion wanted to remain ignorant of when they would die. Even for happy events, ignorance was often prized, be it in the case of Christmas gifts, or the upshot of a football match.
“We live in a world where the idea is more information is always better and much of the technology, like big data and genetic screening, [are] all targets to catch the future so that the future becomes as certain as it can be. This research tries to show that maybe people don’t want that,” said Gerd Gigerenzer, the co-author of the research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Published in the journal Psychological Review, the research involved two face-to-face studies, one in Spain, the other in Germany.
In each, just over 1,000 participants were asked a series of hypothetical questions, five around negative events, such as whether they would want to know when they would die and whether their recent marriage would last, as well as five questions around positive events, such as whether they’d want to know the sex of an unborn baby or the outcome of a recorded football match.
The results of the German study revealed that just under 88% of participants said they did not want to know when they would die, almost 87% said they would not want to know if their marriage would fail, and almost 90% did not want to know when their partner would die.
By contrast just over 59% said they wouldn’t want to know in advance what they were getting for Christmas, 57% did not want to know if there was life after death, while almost 77% would not want someone to reveal the outcome of a football match before they had seen it. Knowing the sex of a baby, however, was only rejected by just over 40% of participants.
Only 1% of participants wanted to catch a glimpse of the future for all issues explored.
When the same study was carried out in Spain, the authors add, the results were very similar, although Spaniards were less interested in keeping the sex of an unborn baby a surprise, and Germans less concerned about maintaining suspense over Christmas presents.
To unpick factors underpinning the desire to remain in the dark, the team asked participants a variety of questions designed to probe their attitudes towards risk. The results suggest that those who prefer to remain ignorant are more risk averse and more likely to buy insurance. Age also came into the mix, with older individuals less keen on knowing whether there was an afterlife, or the time and cause of their own or their partner’s death.
The findings, the authors say, support the idea that both avoiding negative emotions and maintaining an element of surprise are rooted in the common goal of avoiding the feeling of regret. However, they note that those who attend religious services are more likely to want to know what the future holds.
“There are other values besides knowing everything in advance and [they are] largely emotional values – so to avoid the negative feelings that may arise from foreknowledge like Cassandra, or to maintain surprise, and joy in expectations,” said Gigerenzer, citing the Greek myth of Cassandra who was cursed by Apollo to see the future accurately but not to be able to persuade others to heed her warnings.
David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell University who was not involved in the research, said the idea is interesting but further study is needed to probe the idea that anticipated regret is behind the findings.
“People are notorious for not being able to predict how they would respond in situations involving real emotion, and the scenarios people are presented in the studies are merely hypothetica, eg it’s not a real possibility yet to know whether there is life after death,” he said. “I’d like to see more studies involving people, for example, who really are pregnant to see what percentage don’t want to know their baby’s sex.”
A key area to explore is whether knowledge can be be harnessed for action. “Past work on wilful ignorance about medical diseases focus on the issue of control,” said Dunning. “If people can control a disease, they want to know if they have it more than if they feel they cannot control the outcome of the disease, such as in Huntington’s.”
But Gigerenzer says the new research should be a warning to burgeoning attempts to harness technology to predict causes and times of death. “They overlook the large proportion of the public who would not want to see these results,” he said.