The pursuit of knowledge is a basic feature of human nature. However, in domains ranging from health to finance people sometimes choose to remain ignorant. Here, we show that valence is central to the process by which the human brain evaluates the opportunity to gain information, explaining why knowledge may not always be preferred. We reveal that the mesolimbic reward circuitry selectively treats the opportunity to gain knowledge about future favorable outcomes, but not unfavorable outcomes, as if it has positive utility. This neural coding predicts participants' tendency to choose knowledge about future desirable outcomes more often than undesirable ones, and to choose ignorance about future undesirable outcomes more often than desirable ones. Strikingly, participants are willing to pay both for knowledge and ignorance as a function of the expected valence of knowledge. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), however, responds to the opportunity to receive knowledge over ignorance regardless of the valence of the information. Connectivity between the OFC and mesolimbic circuitry could contribute to a general preference for knowledge that is also modulated by valence. Our findings characterize the importance of valence in information seeking and its underlying neural computation. This mechanism could lead to suboptimal behavior, such as when people reject medical screenings or monitor investments more during bull than bear markets.
Keywords: decision making; ignorance; information seeking; knowledge; valence.
Copyright © 2018 the Author(s). Published by PNAS.