Mooers’ law: why people believe fake news and avoid seeking out knowledge

The IET Engineering and Technology magazine is one of the few thing that comes through my letterbox that is really worth reading. The articles give really insightful, engineering-informed views on current political issues, such as one on Fake news that I was reading at the weekend. There was a particular insight from the world of knowledge management that I had not come across before, and which also seems very relevant to us in the workplace.

Mooers’ law

Mooers’ Law is not a misprint of Moore’s Law, the much more famous rule of thumb of electronics. Calvin Northrup Mooers was a US computer scientist who analysed the ways humans find and use information long before the worldwide web deluged the world with disinformation – he died in 1994 just as the web was becoming mainstream.

Mooers found that humans will often deliberately avoid information: “It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and that they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information… if you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it… understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.”

Mooers’ Law, as summarised in a 1960 paper for the journal American Documentation, claimed: “An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.”

A barrage of research at the intersection between psychology and economics has borne out Mooers’ Law. Economists have been fascinated with the idea of information avoidance for decades because of the effect it has on investors and business managers. Joshua Lederberg of Rockefeller came up with a version that presents it in economics terms: “People will resist information unless the price of not knowing it greatly exceeds the price of learning it.”

Just in case this was itself fake news, I checked out a couple of other sources online, and yes, this is a thing.

Doesn’t everyone research things?

The thing is, Mooers’ law doesn’t resonate with me personally. I must be odd, because I do like to be stretched, and I deliberately seek out views that conflict with my own, pushing as hard as I can to see the grain of truth in another point of view. I use a search engine to research something as thoroughly as I can. Maybe other people just accept what they see on Facebook or the top result on Google without checking further. And the fake news insight is that corporations and vested interests manipulate those easy-to-find stories, wrap them in warm emotions so they influence us more than we realise.

I suppose I need to deal with a new realisation that not everyone wants to learn – even though it might be better for them in the end.

Findability is important, but it’s not enough

A lot of my work in the Academy is about helping people to find the resources they need to do their job really well. I’m gutted to discover that not everyone is going to value that!

Mooers’ law is a bit of a challenge. “No matter how findable your information is, people will avoid it because new information stretches you. And nobody likes to be stretched.”

More quotes:

“In the building and planning of our information handling and retrieving systems, we have tended to believe implicitly, and to make the assumption, that having information easily available is always a good thing, and that all people with access to an information system would want to use the system to get the information. It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information.

“Having information is painful and troublesome. We all have experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it. To do this, you may have to think about it. The information may require you to make decisions about it or other information. The decisions may require action in the way of a troublesome program of work, or trips or painful interviews. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or that your boss was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Having information, you must be careful not to lose it. If nothing else, information piles up on your desk—unread. It is a nuisance to have it come to you. It is uncomfortable to have to do anything about it. Finally, if you do try to use the information properly, you may be accused of puttering instead of working. Then in the end, the incorporation of the information into the work you do may often not be noticed or appreciated. Work saved is seldom recognized. Work done—even in duplication—is well paid and rewarded.”

“Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it. Let me explain this further. In many work environments, the penalties for not being diligent in the finding and use of information are minor, if they exist at all. In fact, such lack of diligence tends often to be rewarded. The man who does not fuss with information is seen at his bench, plainly at work, getting the job done. Approval goes to projects where things are happening.

“People usually take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to continue doing things the same way, as you’ve always done them, without reaching out to learn some new process or information that might invalidate, challenge, and force you to reassess your previous assumptions. Information can be threatening and hard to deal with. It can be thick to interpret, exhausting to follow, and painful in the realizations it provides.

“People resist reading an application’s help file for all these reasons — it’s tedious, sometimes hard to understand, requires interpretation, effort to locate, etc. It’s seems so much easier to hack your way through an application with trial and error and guessing.

So what?

I’m totally into lifelong learning. I’m now wanting to examine that and work out why that is true for me and many others. What would it take to influence other people to have the same outlook on life?

Organisational culture. How can we reward knowledge reuse more than ‘innovative’ reinvention of wheels? What would we need to build in to our processes, the questions we ask at performance reviews etc?

Search skills. I was amazed at the hunger there was for better skills in searching for stuff when we did the Search masterclass recently.

Curation. Putting effort into the quality of what is easily found. Adding those summaries and recommendations and quality markers that draw attention to the good stuff.

Findability. Making sure the good stuff floats to the top of search results. Or “ambient findability” it just appears in the context when people need it.

Keep it short. And visual.

Create emotional and human connection. Storytelling. Grabs attention, makes knowledge memorable.

What other practical implications of Mooers’ law can you see for how we do things in the workplace? In the comments please.


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