Are we communicating information that our audiences don’t want to receive?

2 November 2022

Communicating policy to audiences when there’s already too much information out there is a challenge – sometimes our audiences just don’t want to know. The researcher and policy-maker Cass Sunstein experienced this. After months of working hard with the US Food and Drug Administration to establish a new regulation, he had finally ensured that restaurants and movie theatres had to display the calories contained in the food that they sell. Happy about the results, he emailed a friend to share the news. His friend, however, was not as enthusiastic: ‘Cass, you ruined popcorn’.

This story is part of Sunstein’s latest book, Too Much Information, where he offers a new perspective on the issue of transparency and public data that’s so dear to all knowledge producers. We know that transparency is good, that knowledge sets us free, and that we have the right to know. The open data movement is probably one of the best news of today’s democracies. But do we know too much? We’re swimming in a sea of information, and many of us are tiring of the struggle to stay afloat. As Sunstein said, giving information is only useful if our audiences are willing to receive it and make use of it.

People seek or avoid information in two different ways. One is pragmatic: we want to know something because it can be useful to us. For example: if I’m going to visit you, give me your address; if I’m not coming, don’t give it to me. Or: give me the graphs that I need to make a good decision; don’t give me the ones that I don’t need.

The other way is hedonistic: will receiving this information make me feel good, give me pleasure, or make me happy? Will it speak directly to one of my interests and keep me engaged? 

There are also many things that we’d rather not know just to avoid getting upset. For example, Sunstein cites studies in his book showing that people consume less stock market information when the market’s on a downward trend. Also, in one of his survey studies, only 42% of participants were interested in knowing what their family and friends thought about them. More than half preferred not to know! And only 27% of the participants wanted to know in what year they’ll die. 

But what does all this mean for researchers, policy-makers, and think tank communicators, like us at Sociopúblico?

We tend to assume that the public wants to know everything that’s useful to them. Other information-givers do this too, e.g., doctors, regulators, judges, and educators. Indeed, if we’re serious and strategic about our communications, we start by thinking about our audiences’ needs, their pain points, and the ways that our information may suit them.

However, Sunstein proposes something different. He urges us to put emotion and pleasure at the centre of our thinking on how to communicate. It’s not the only defining factor, but it’s the one that our audiences use the most to decide what information to consume. Yet, surprisingly, it’s the one that’s most often overlooked by information-givers.

We know that we have emotional brains. And our behaviour towards data is related to the biases that affect our decisions. However, when we talk about information, we generally use the lens of reason. 

We forget that we don’t want to consume stock market data about a bearish market because of our aversion to loss, which makes us suffer failures more than we enjoy triumphs. 

We forget that we have a present bias, which makes us care more about enjoying our popcorn now, than about taking care of our health by reading the nutritional information. 

We forget that we often underestimate our ability to recover from difficult news, so we avoid going to the doctor when we suspect a serious illness. But it’s been proven that receiving bad news gives us a bad day and not necessarily a bad few months – we’re more resilient and adaptable than we think. 

Remembering that these biases exist, and that the usefulness of our information won’t necessarily compel our audiences to listen, could help all information-givers. It could help us to understand when we should communicate our information to our audiences, and how we should frame our content for them.

And if we struggle to find the right tone or to spark the curiosity of our audiences, we can always succumb to popcorn ourselves, and try again tomorrow.