Urges: The Need to Know

Why we seek out hurtful information

By Matthew Hutson, published on March 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

According to the classic G.I. Joe PSAs, knowing is half the battle. But sometimes cognizance backfires. (Do you feel better knowing your high-school angel is now a centerfold?) We often ask ill-fated questions hoping the news will be better than expected. ("Is my haircut terrible?") But new research shows we'll even seek out reports we know will hurt us. Why?

Curiosity is a "hot" state like hunger and lust, according to researchers Justin Kruger of NYU and Matt Evans of DePaul. "People will consume cake not because they've done a rational analysis but because they simply can't resist," Kruger says. Facts, like calories, are generally good to have but can also get us into trouble.

In one study, subjects had the chance to view a transcript of others ridiculing them. Although 39 percent said reading the remarks would do more harm than good, only 13 percent opted out. In another test, the number of subjects who said they'd want to know eight hypothetical facts (that they have a low IQ, that their ex cheated on them) also outnumbered those who thought it would be helpful.

When people decided whether to expose their friends or their future selves to the harmful info, reason won out and subjects were more likely to keep it under wraps. But even though we often keep others in the dark, the authors point out, we resent such paternalism ourselves. Next time you get worked up over a white lie, remember that the information gatekeeper often knows best.


Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  • Adam and Eve. They just wanted an apple.
  • Paternity Testing. Jerry Springer isn't complaining. (But John Edwards is.)
  • Reality TV. Can we un-watch Jersey Shore?
  • The ImClone case. Insider trading hampers Martha Stewart's living arrangements...