HEALTH

Spoiler Alert: No One Really Wants To Know Their Fate

Good news or bad, if given the opportunity, we don't want to know our true futures

HEALTH
Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Feb 22, 2017 at 5:19 PM ET

For all of our fascination with fortune tellers, horoscopes and magic 8-balls, it seems that most of us would rather know not what the future holds when push comes to shove— at least according to a new study published Monday in Psychological Review.

A pair of researchers, based in Spain and Germany, polled their respective countrymen on whether they’d like to know the outcome of 10 common future events. The events ranged from the negative, like finding out when you or your life partner would die, to the positive, like being told in advance what your Christmas gifts would be. They also included scenarios that we can easily predict today, like your child’s sex while they’re still in the womb, and those we’re likely never to get an answer about, such as knowing if life after death exists.

Over the course of two trials that took place in both countries, each involving around 1,000 participants who were interviewed in person, nearly everyone said they’d choose to remain in blissful ignorance about at least one of the events. For just positive events, about 40 to 80 percent of people didn’t want to know, while around 90 percent said they’d plug their ears and sing show tunes if anyone tried to warn them of a negative fate. And all told, only one percent said they’d want to know about every possible event.

According to the researchers, the findings suggest that people often deliberately choose to ignore what lies ahead, hoping to avoid living a life in fear or regret or without the hope of an uplifting, happy surprise. In fact, the more direct and timely relevance the event had — death to an older person, or divorce to a married person — the less likely they’d want to know.  And far from the common perception of people being rational thinkers who crave any and all information they can gobble up, the researchers added, this deliberate ignorance about often foreseeable events seems to be a “widespread state of mind when dealing with issues such as death and divorce.”

Thought most everyone would avoid the hypothetical opportunity to become their own personal Cassandra, the famous Greek princess cursed to know the future but have none believe her, there were subtle differences in which kinds of people most hated the power of prophecy.

Contradicting other research suggesting that young people tend to not care about the future, it was actually older people who least liked to know their fate. That’s probably because, the researchers said, older folks would likely sooner experience whatever unfortunate series of events came to pass. People who were risk-adverse and not religious were also less likely to want to know.

Aside from being a fun exploration of people’s innermost quirks, the study could have serious implications. Already, there are ways to screen for future health problems like cancer and genetic diseases long before they happen, and we’ll only get better at it with time. But if these findings are right on the money, then it might be a lot harder to get people to go along with these cost- and life-saving interventions than we previously thought. Whether a person’s reluctance to accept godlike power and see the future would carry over to a fear of disease screenings is an unanswered question, though, one that deserves further study.

If nothing else, at least you now have the science to back up why people who spoil the latest Game of Thrones episode are a plague on our society.