I often talk about self-delusion and even joke sometimes about how I am happy to live in my imaginary world of lollipops and puppies. In many cases, we can frame situations so that they are positive and unless there are unavoidable and serious consequences this can actually increase lifetime levels of happiness, regardless of the “normative” reality.
But when there are unavoidable and serious consequences, we need to pop the self-delusion bubble. This is one of those examples. The study finds that women who hear that a coworker was diagnosed with breast cancer are less likely to get mammograms and to be proactive about their own health. In fact, those at risk of the most serious breast cancers have the greatest decline in screening.
It’s the idea that information can sometimes be scary. And in those cases, people can sometimes avoid that kind of information. I did a story a couple of weeks ago that looked at college students who didn’t want to find out that they had sexually transmitted diseases for example.
How could this be? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t there be a “scared straight” effect? It turns out that information aversion rears its ugly head. When we hear information that is personally and viscerally scary, we reject it. Not only do we ignore it, but we do just the opposite of what that information should be telling us to do. This is similar to the self-identity resonance that I have discussed before.
When we hear of someone else’s experience, our mirror modeling brain function imagines that experience and extrapolates to what we would do in their shoes. In this case, hearing about a coworker’s cancer diagnosis conjures up the image in your own mind of yourself with that diagnosis, evokes the emotional reaction, and then the aversive response. The higher your cancer risk, the stronger the emotion is likely to be and thereby the stronger the rejection of the whole idea. And the negative consequences for your health.
I guess that this is one of those places where affective metacognition and mindfulness can be really helpful. You can learn to recognize this in yourself and intentionally suppress it.