How people decide what they want to know

In a Q&A, Cass Sunstein discusses his recent paper on the motives and biases that influence what information we seek, and why

Cass Sunstein

Credit: Phil Farnsworth University Professor Cass Sunstein ’78

When we live in an age of information, what information do we choose to absorb? And once we have absorbed information, which factors influence how we process it? Cass Sunstein ’78, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, examines those questions in a study published this week in the scientific journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The paper, “How people decide what they want to know,” was co-authored by Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London. It examines the motives and biases that drive the seeking and avoidance of information, the choices individuals make whether to access information that could affect their lives in terms of health, finance or other factors. The authors argue that a better understanding of this process would benefit government agencies and health institutions in making information public.

Sunstein discussed his research with Harvard Law Today in an email interview that took place this week as he was en route to London.


Harvard Law Today: What are the factors that influence whether a person seeks out information or not?

Cass Sunstein: There are three. First, of course, is whether information is useful. You might not want to seek out information that has no bearing on your life. Second (and more interesting) is whether you think information will make you happy or sad. You might not want to know the year of your death; you might not want to know the calories in your dinner; you might not want to know your grades. The third is whether the information bears on something that you care about—for example, the history of South Africa, Shakespeare’s life, or whether dogs come from wolves.

HLT: What are the implications of people’s decisions not to seek information, both for individuals and society/government?

Cass Sunstein: For individuals, it might be a good idea not to seek out irrelevant information—but not so good if we do not seek out information that might make us unhappy, but also make us do better or live better. (Some law professors do not read their course evaluations!) For government, it’s important to know whether people will seek out information that it provides—for example, about health and safety. If people avoid information, it won’t be very helpful even if it is available.

HLT: As you note in the paper, there is now more information available than ever before. How much impact does this have on the choices people make on what to absorb?

Cass Sunstein: The sheer volume of available information of course means that people have to be more selective. There isn’t a lot of data on the good question you ask, but our theory suggests that to get people’s attention, you’d do best to make people think that the information really will be quite useful to them—and that it won’t make them mad or upset.

HLT: During an HLS seminar in 2013 you addressed the connection between behavioral economics and public policy, specifically as this relates to climate change. Can you say a bit about this connection, and has it changed in the years since?

Cass Sunstein: There should be a book on this subject! (Maybe there is. Maybe more than one.)

Very briefly: Salient, clear information can help consumers to make choices that are better for the environment, and that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Automatic enrollment in green energy can be a significant help. Fuel economy and energy efficiency requirements have a behavioral justification, because consumers may choose motor vehicles and appliances that cost more at the time of purchase but less over the years (thus showing “present bias”).

HLT: Does your research have implications for advertisers, including tech giants like Google and Facebook?

Cass Sunstein: Definitely. It’s important for advertisers to emphasize that obtaining information is very useful, and can change their lives for the better—and also to show that obtaining (some) information is a lot of fun.

HLT: We are coming up to another presidential election.  What does your research say about how voters seek out information about candidates and make voting decisions?

Cass Sunstein: One implication is that people might seek information that affirms what they currently think, or that at least does not contradict it. They might not seek information that comes from “other” candidates or the “other side.” That can be a real problem for candidates and for democracy too.

HLT: You cowrote a Boston Globe op-ed this week that suggested the emergency room as one place to register voters. Do you feel that such creative solutions are necessary to make potential voters more engaged?

Cass Sunstein: Yes. A lot of people don’t register, and one reason is that registering can be a bit of a hassle. Anything that reduces that hassle is a plus. The same lesson applies to voting itself, and also to political engagement.