Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want to Know: Yale School of Management Study Finds People Actively Avoid Medical Diagnoses for Illnesses Perceived as Severe, Untreatable
New Haven, Conn., April 26, 2006—
People are often reluctant to obtain diagnostic medical tests for serious diseases they may be at risk for including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer’s. A new study finds that the perceived treatability and severity of a disease impacts individuals’ decisions to submit to—or avoid—medical screening.
According to the research, people tend to seek diagnostic information for conditions they believe to be severe but treatable, and to avoid testing for conditions they believe to be severe and untreatable.
The study “Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want to Know: Understanding People’s Reluctance to Obtain Medical Diagnostic Information,” was conducted by Erica Dawson of the Yale School of Management, Kenneth Savitsky of Williams College, and David Dunning of Cornell University.
“If people think they have no control, they may not seek information about their health status even if they are at risk for a serious disease. In fact, they may go out of their way to actively avoid any information,” said Dawson, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and fellow of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management.
In one experiment, the researchers manipulated the perceived treatability of the disease alopecia areata, a condition that can cause hair loss but poses no overall health threat. When participants were told that they were at risk for alopecia and that the disease is both severe and untreatable, they avoided opportunities to obtain information about the condition. Compared to subjects who were told that alopecia is a treatable condition, they were less likely to request a conclusive genetic test, less likely to volunteer to participate in a future study about the disease, and avoided looking at an informational brochure about the disease in private.
The authors contend that the results may underestimate the degree to which people avoid information in real-world occurrences of diseases whose characteristics are more severe than the hair loss associated with alopecia.
The findings can help healthcare professionals predict when people are prone to avoid testing and counsel them accordingly.
“Caregivers should discuss treatment options not only with patients who have been positively diagnosed, but also with those who have considered, but not yet consented to, diagnostic testing,” said Dawson.
Dawson is currently conducting new research that applies the study’s findings about how people seek and process information to other domains such as environmental issues including global warming. For example, if people perceive climate change to be both inevitable and dangerous, they may censor the information they are exposed to—they may go out of their way to avoid or discredit data that suggests the planet is facing severe environmental problems.
“Over the past years, policy makers have put more effort into denying that climate change is a problem than in understanding it. I see this as a self-protective measure akin to avoiding the test that says you might have an incurable, dangerous disease,” said Dawson.
Citation: Journal of Applied Social Psychology
, 2006, Vol. 36, Issue 3