In the rational Economics 101 world, more information is always a good thing. You can throw it away if you don’t need or want it. You can even refuse to look at it.
As we go on in economics we learn about things like adverse selection and that insurance markets can’t exist in worlds of perfect information, meaning those who are about to get hit by bad shocks are SOL. But everybody else lives risk free, so whatevs.
And then we get into behavioral economics… what people actually do.
More information can be a double-edged sword.
You probably noticed that credit card statements have more information on them these days than they did a few years ago. You know know how long it’ll take to pay back that debt paying down the minimum, for example.
The improved information on the credit card bills is based on work done in an experiment on payday lenders by Marianne Bertrand at UChicago. They find that people are less likely to take out stupid loans from payday loan companies if how bad those loans are is made more salient. New evidence from Sumit Agarwal and coauthors shows that the credit card change worked.
On the other hand, there’s work done on calorie postings on drinks– it actually hasn’t shown much of an effect on calories in beverage consumption. People overestimate the number of calories in Starbucks drinks and are pleasantly surprised to find actual calorie counts, leading them to consume more of things they’d been overestimating. There’s also some concern that they don’t understand what the number of calories means in terms of their own diet. (They do tend to eat lower calorie food items at Starbucks with the postings though.)
Cigarette box warnings don’t work for the same reason that calorie postings don’t work. People already overestimate their chance of getting lung cancer from smoking. So the warnings don’t add new information.
The money information added to credit cards and check cashing places is different than the food posting information… people really do not know how many years it will take to pay off a balance if they’re only paying the minimum, or how much they will end up paying in interest at the end of that. That does provide new information to consumers. There’s no pleasant surprise when that information is put in an easy to understand format.
Update: Here’s another cool article: Paging Inspector Sands: The Costs of Public InformationSacha Kapoor and Arvind Magesan We exploit the introduction of pedestrian countdown signals—timers that indicate when traffic lights will change—to evaluate a policy that improves the information of all market participants. We find that although countdown signals reduce the number of pedestrians struck by automobiles, they increase the number of collisions between automobiles. They also cause more collisions overall, implying that welfare gains can be attained by hiding the information from drivers. Whereas most empirical studies on the role of information in markets suggest that asymmetric information reduces welfare, we conclude that asymmetric information can, in fact, improve it.
So information can help or hurt depending on how addictive the behavior is and whether we’re over- or under-estimating the badness of what we’re addicted to.
Have you ever been in a situation in which you would have been better off without more information? Has getting more information ever transformed your actions?