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The blissful ignorance effect

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

When consumers need to choose between various alternatives, the information about each option can be vague or precise. When choosing between various brands of pasta sauce, precise information could be provided, such as the exact nutritional content. Alternatively, hazy information could be provided, such as a list of ingredients rather than precise nutritional content.

According to the blissful ignorance effect (Mishra, Shiv, & Nayakankuppam, 2008), before individuals sample the options,they tend to prefer the alternative in which the information is most precise. Indeed, many studies have substantiated this preference towards precision (e.g., Cameron & Weber, 1992& Fox & Tversky, 1995). In contrast, after individuals sample the options and reach a decision, they are more likely to evaluate this alternative favorably if the information is vague.

Empirical evidence

Preliminary evidence

Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008) first conducted a pilot study, which extended the classical Ellsberg's paradox (Ellsberg, 1961), to demonstrate the blissful ignorance effect. In the traditional paradigm, participants must choose a ball from an urn. The urn contains both red and blue balls. Participants who select a blue ball are designated as the victors. Furthermore, participants are asked to predict the likelihood they feel they will select a blue ball, from a scale of 1, which designates not at all optimistic, to 7, which designates very optimistic.

To manipulate precision, some particpants are told the urn comprises exactly three red and three blue balls. Other participants are informed the urn comprises six balls, some of which are blue and some of which are red. Traditionally, when the information is precise rather than vague, participants are more optimistic they will select a blue ball (Ellsberg, 1961).

Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008), however, introduced a subtle manipulation. Some participants were asked to predict the optimism of selecting a blue ball after they had grabbed one of the balls but before retrieving their hand from the urn--called a post action prediction. Other participants were asked to predict the optimism of selecting a blue ball before selecting of the balls--called a pre action prediction, which aligns more closely with the original paradigm. Intriguingly, when the prediction followed the selection of a ball, participants were more optimistic they would choose a blue ball if the information was vague rather than precise.

Additional evidence

Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008) conducted some additional studies, primarily to demonstrate the effect is robust and to explore the underlying mechanisms. In one study, participants received precise information about a brand of chocolate--that is, specific nutritional information--or vague information about this product--that is, a mere list of ingredients. In addition, participants predicted the likelihood they might recommend the chocolate to other individuals. Some participants formed this prediction before they sampled the chocolate& other participants formed this prediction after they sampled the chocolate.

The results aligned with the blissful ignorance effect. If they had not sampled the chocolate, participants were marginally more likely to predict they will recommend this brand if the information was precise. If they had sampled the chocolate, participants were more likely to predict they will recommend this brand if the information was vague--which enables individuals to focus inordinately on desirable facets only.

Consistent with this explanation, after participants sampled the chocolate, they were more likely to recognize the positive attrbutes, such as "contains natural ingredients", than negative attributes, such as "can harm teeth". In other words, their attention was directed to attributes that facilitated desirable feelings.

Another study, also conducted by Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008), was similar but included a few modifications. The product was hand lotion rather than chocolate. A different manipulation was used to vary precision: participants were informed that precisely 50% of the claims about this product had been verified or were informed the percentage of claims about this product that are true has not been established. Finally, some participants were encouraged to focus on accuracy, such as to take "Great care to collect information and make a very careful, unbiased, and accurate decision".

Again, the blissful ignorance effect was confirmed. Furthermore, when participants were instructed to focus on accuracy, the benefits of vague information after the decision diminished, consistent with the contention that accuracy goals are not as salient after individuals commit to a choice.

Finally, in some additional studies, Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008) showed that disagreement amongst experts, rather than absense of information, to manipulate vagueness did not diminish the effect. Furthermore, these studies demonstrated that individuals tend to endorse accuracy goals, as tested by their evaluations of various scenarios, before decisions are reached. Participants tended to endorse desirability goals after decisions to commit towards one alternative was reached. Finally, dispositional optimism, as assessed by a shortened version of the Life Optimism Test, did not moderate the blissful ignorance effect.

Underling mechanisms

According to Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008), the blissful ignorance effect emanates from two conflicting goals that individuals experience when they predict some outcome. First, individuals want to ensure their expectations or predictions are accurate. Second, individuals want to experience desirable outcomes, which often elicits predictions that are unduly optimistic (see Kunda, 1990& Moskovitz, 2005). Before individuals select an alternative, the goal to be accurate prevails. After individals are committed to an alternative, the goal to experience a desired outcome prevails.

Accordingly, before individuals commit to a specific alternative, and thus seek accuracy, they prefer precise information. This information satisfies the goal to maintain accuracy and thus increases their confidence. In contrast, after individuals commit to some alternative, and therefore are more driven to promote a desirable outcome, they prefer vague information. Specifically, vague information enables individuals to focus their attention towards features or facets that amplify the benefits of their choice or obscure the drawbacks.

To illustrate, after individuals choose a ball from an urn, they would like to feel their decision was appropriate. That is, given they cannot change their decision, they would like to enjoy the fruits of their choice. If they do not know how many red and blue balls appear in the urn, they can contemplate the possibility that almost all the balls are blue, which evokes positive feelings, without compromising their actions.

Practical implications

The blissful ignorance effect, according to Mishra, Shiv, and Nayakankuppam (2008), could explain some interesting patterns in the stockmarket. Individuals tend to know more precise information about established companies relative to new companies. Thus, after they purchase stock, they will be more optimistic about new companies--on which their information and knowledge is vague. This possibility could explain the discover that stock prices of new or smaller firms rise more steadily than stock prices for large firms (Keim, 1983).

Before customers commit to some brand, organizations should attempt to offer specific, precise information about their services or products, which should highlight both strengths and limitations.

References

Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: When deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 15-29.

Ellsberg, D. (1961). Risk, ambiguity, and the savage axioms. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75, 643-669.

Fox, C. R., & Tversky, A. (1995). Ambiguity aversion and comparative ignorance. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 10, 585-603.

Keim, D. B. (1983). Size related anomalies and stock return seasonality: Further empirical evidence. Journal of Financial Economics, 12, 13-32.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Mishra, H., Shiv, B., & Nayakankuppam, D. (2008). The blissful ignorance effect: Pre- versus post-action effect on outcome expectancies arising from precise and vague information. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 573-585.

Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social Cognition: Understanding self and others. New York: Guilford.



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Last Update: 6/28/2016