In Game of Thrones, the Red Priestess Melisandre illustrated what centuries of fictional fortune-tellers have taught us: The ability to know the future sucks. Fortunately, it seems that humans have taken her tragic lesson to heart: In a new study, researchers report that the majority of people have learned from their fictional forebears’ mistakes and would refuse to find out what their futures had in store, given the chance to see it.
Describing their survey of over 2,000 adults in the journal Psychological Review, scientists from the University of Granada report that only 1 percent of their participants consistently wanted to know what the future held, regardless of whether the outcomes were positive or negative. These findings, they conclude, support the “regret theory,” which is an attempt to explain why we sometimes prefer “deliberate ignorance” despite it generally being in our best interest to know.
They liken their paper’s central conundrum to the choice presented to the mythological Greek princess Cassandra, who was given the choice to see the future. “In our study, we’ve found that people would rather decline the powers that made Cassandra famous, in an effort to forgo the suffering that knowing the future may cause, avoid regret and also maintain the enjoyment of suspense that pleasurable events provide,” said lead author Gerd Gigerenzer, Ph.D., of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in a statement.
Gigerenzer and his team presented a series of “What if?” scenarios to their participants to learn their views on forecasting the future. Did they want to know who would win tonight’s soccer match? What they were getting for Christmas? Whether there is life after death? By varying the amount of time that their predictions would span — there’s a big difference between knowing the outcome of a sports event and whether your marriage would end in divorce — they gained insight into what exactly it was their participants did or didn’t want to know.
While their participants, who were part of a nationally representative sample from Germany and Spain, generally preferred not to know about the future at all, they were more willing to know about upcoming positive events than negative ones. When presented with the option to know about future good news, 40 to 70 percent of people said they’d rather not know; the fraction of people who preferred to maintain “deliberate ignorance” of future bad news, in contrast, was much higher, at 85 to 90 percent. This result suggest that what people really fear is regret — that is, they’re afraid of hearing news about their future that they’ll immediately wish they’d never heard. In their minds, it’s better not to know at all. Further supporting the “regret theory” is the fact that the willfully ignorant people also happen to be the same risk-averse folks who frequently buy life and legal insurance — which, in its own way, is also a safeguard against regret.
A closer look at what kind of situations people preferred not to know about revealed that they were more likely to choose deliberate ignorance if the event that was being predicted was in the near future. Older people, for example, were far more likely than younger people to prefer not to know when and how they — or their partners — would die. Finding out the sex of their unborn child was the only item in the survey where more people wanted to know than didn’t, with only 37 percent of participants saying they wouldn’t want to know.
Forecasting the future has been the stuff of fantasy novels and mythology until very recently, as DNA sequencing has made it possible to glimpse into our medical futures. Now, services offered by gene testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com purport to tell people what illnesses are written in their genes, and the popularity of such personal DNA analyses suggests that people do, in fact, want to know their futures. The central problem of regret, however, remains: We can’t guarantee that what we’ll find out is something we want to know — and, at least with genetic profiling, we certainly can’t say that we’ll interpret our forecasts correctly. As Melisandre’s debacle with Jon Snow showed, misreading the future can get us into a lot of trouble in the present, so we should approach it with caution — or avoid messing with it at all.