March 19, 2014

CGU study finds that college students will pay to avoid STD testing

There are times in life when obtaining information early is critical. Early diagnosis of cancer can mean the difference between life and death. Discovering exposure to a financial bubble allows for restructuring of a portfolio before a market crash.

But according to a new study from the Department of Politics and Economics in Claremont Graduate University’s School of Social Science Policy and Evaluation many people will go to great lengths to avoid learning potentially unpleasant information even when it would be hugely valuable to them in the future.

Many of those same people though will incur significant costs to seek out information that will make them happy even if that information is useless for improving future decision making.

"We found that the more happy a future experience the more people want information about that future experience " said Assistant Professor Joshua Tasoff who led the study. "The more scary or less pleasurable the future experience the more people will avoid information about it."

Tasoff a behavioral economist conducted the study with Ananda Ganguly professor in Claremont McKenna College’s Robert Day School of Economics.

Tasoff and Ganguly surveyed 194 sexually active young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. In what the researchers dubbed the "STD" segment of the study subjects had their blood drawn and were educated about the two strains of the herpes simplex virus which is carried by more than 50 percent of young adults. The researchers then offered the students $10 to be tested for both the relatively mild herpes simplex 1 and the more severe herpes simplex 2 strains of the virus.

Nearly 7 percent of the subjects refused to be tested for herpes simplex 1 and nearly 12 percent declined to be tested for herpes simplex 2 . These subjects were willing to lose blood and forgo $10 to avoid learning potentially unpleasant information.

"As the severity of the disease increases the avoidance of testing increases " Tasoff said. "They could have kept the money taken the tests and possessed information that would allow them to make better decisions about their health but they did not do so due to the anxiety-provoking nature of the information."

In the second prong of the experiment which the researchers called the "lottery" segment the same subjects were presented with a pair of envelopes labeled "big" and "small." The "small" envelope had a 10 percent chance of containing $10. The "big" envelope had a 10 percent chance of containing $100. The subjects were told they could open the envelopes and keep any potential winnings at the conclusion of the experiments – about 30 minutes later – or pay 50 cents of their own money to open an envelope immediately.

Nearly 43 percent of the students paid to open the "big" envelope early and more than 17 percent paid to open the "small" envelope.

"Because the big lottery was more pleasurable or exciting to think about more subjects were willing pay to find out about it " Tasoff said. "This occurred even though the information was completely useless to them. They had a small chance of winning they were stuck in the lab and they were going to get to open the envelopes at the end of the experiment either way."

Tasoff believes this spectrum of information seeking and avoidance could have broad implications in several domains most notably in the field of public health. Information avoidance could result in declining health spirals in which an unhealthy condition may lead to willful ignorance which in turn results in an unnecessary rapid spread of a disease.

The findings are consistent with previous research that revealed many people routinely delay tests for breast prostate and colon cancer. They also help to illuminate why in the early years of the AIDS epidemic the median infected person lived with HIV for 9 years before first getting tested.

Consequently designing policies to overcome such information avoidance can have important public health repercussions.

"For example if all individuals in the highest risk groups for a disease received routine tests as part of an annual physical checkup information avoidance may decrease " Tasoff said. "It might be just the nudge people need."

The study was funded by a BLAIS Foundation Challenge Award.

The full paper is available here.