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Why We’d Rather Not Know the Future

Almost all of us prefer to stay in suspense regarding how our personal story turns out.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Edwin Andrade/Unsplash)

In the Oscar-nominated film Arrival, visiting space aliens offer humanity a gift: the ability to see the future. If this option were presented to us in real life, would we accept it?

Newly published research reports the answer is: absolutely not.

People in two major European countries — Germany and Spain — overwhelmingly indicated they would rather not know about negative events in advance. Smaller percentages — but still majorities in most cases — also preferred to remain in the dark about upcoming good news.

“Deliberate ignorance” is a “widespread state of mind,” lead author Gerd Gigerenzer of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development said in announcing the results. His study, co-authored with Rocio Garcia-Retamero of the University of Granada, is published in the journal Psychological Review.

The researchers describe two studies: one featuring 1,016 adults living in Germany, and another featuring 1,002 adults in Spain. The two nations “vary in age, education, and other important respects,” they note. All information was collected in face-to-face interviews.

Participants were asked if they would like to know the answer to a series of questions — some deadly serious, others less so. The researchers report that, when it comes to the timing or cause of negative events, nearly nine in 10 people said they would rather remain ignorant.

Asked if they would want to have an exact time stamp on their eventual death, 87.7 percent of Germans said no. Only 4.2 percent said yes, while 8.2 percent were uncertain. A similar percentage, 87.3 percent, did not want to know the cause of their death.

Even more, 89.5 percent, did not want to know the date of their partner’s death, and 86.5 percent did not want to know whether their marriage would end in divorce.

Members of the sample were more open to learning good news in advance, but only 59.6 percent wanted to know what presents they were getting for Christmas. Germans were split on the issue of knowing in advance the sex of their baby: Forty percent said yes, 43 percent no, with the remainder leaving the decision to the partner.

Spanish participants answered a bit differently when it came to the good-news items (almost 70 percent wanted to know their Christmas presents), but their answers on the negative-news items were very similar to those of the Germans. (It would be fascinating to ask the same questions in an Eastern society such as India or Japan.)

While conceding that these results clash with assumptions about our thirst for knowledge, the researchers argue willful ignorance has a dual function: “First, to avoid the negative feeling of regret after having learned that an undesirable event is going to happen,” and second, “to maintain the positive feeling of surprise and suspense … thereby avoiding the regret that knowing the outcome would ‘spoil the punch line.’”

The results suggest avoiding anticipated anguish is a stronger impulse than we realize. While that’s a fascinating finding, the study has practical implications. The researchers note that gene-based medicine “will put more and more people into situations where they have to decide whether they want to know future health issues.”

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to discover whether we are prone to a variety of diseases. Knowing such information could help us make major life decisions in an informed, thoughtful way.

But we can only take advantage of this information if we can we emotionally handle the knowledge of when and how we are likely to die. And when that subject is broached, our impulse seems to be to run as fast as we can in the other direction.