For those of you familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is one of the most enduring characters. If you have never come across the world of Arthur Dent, the Vogons and the Infinite Improbability Drive, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is a creature whose incredible hunger and viciousness is matched only by its incredible stupidity. It believes that if you cannot see it, then it cannot see you. It is possibly the most dangerous beast in the known universe, but if you are faced with one, you simply close your eyes or wrap a towel around your head. Thus, unable to see you, it will wander off. Douglas Adams enjoyed mocking our human foibles and this idea is a nice twist on the ostrich effect. Most people find the concept hilarious and the behaviour is, well, obviously, stupid.
But we do it ourselves all the time.
We do it around our health and around our finances, to name two of the biggest areas. And, in general, we avoid information when we expect the outcome to be bad. Large credit card bill? Better not open that. Not enough money in the bank? Let’s avoid logging in. Stock market down? Best not to check my investments. And the converse is true. Most people check their bank balance the day they get paid. Partly this is to make sure they got paid, but mainly because it’s the highest balance for the month and it makes them feel good. Same thing happens when the stock market is up. We expect to feel good, so we check our ISAs.
But humans are primarily wired to avoid discomfort and research shows that most people avoid information to some degree. Research also shows that how people avoid information is context dependent. So, for example, people who want to know everything about their health might also be the very same people who don’t want to know information about their personal finances. We all have things we avoid.
The origins of avoiding discomfort go back hundreds of millions of years and are based in the evolutionary urges of staying safe and keeping away from danger. And this made sense when we lived in a world that was full of physical danger and uncertainty. Staying safe was really important. But now, the same mechanisms that evolved to keep us alive are also blocking us from things that we need to engage with – like our health and our finances. The discomfort we feel around our finances comes from possible regret around choices we have made, and concern about actions we may have to take. And it’s totally normal to feel that way; but avoidance isn’t going to change anything.
The other factor at play is whether we believe we can do anything with the information. When we have a low sense of control, we tend to avoid information. Why would I bother finding out if I can’t do anything about it? In general terms, this is another form of discomfort avoidance, this time directed against our sense of agency.
So how do you take in information when you need to but also really don’t want to?
Firstly, remember that avoiding discomfort is normal and don’t blame yourself for feeling that way. Secondly, try and think about why exactly you’re avoiding the information. Just contemplating why they’re avoiding information helps people to seek information out. And it may well be that things are not as bad as you imagine. When we avoid focusing on the bad aspects of something, we miss all the good aspects too. It’s also likely that, with support and guidance, you have a lot more control over the future than you tell yourself.
These small steps will set you on the path forward, and once you begin to make progress, you’ll immediately start to feel better about yourself and what you’re doing.
Closing your eyes only works when you’re facing the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.