That headline is a more interesting question, I think, for people of the general age (50- or 60-plus) who read this blog than younger people. As it turns out, two new studies released just this week has some answers.
One involved face-to-face interviews with 1,016 adults living in Germany. The other featured similar interviews with 1,002 adults living in Spain. As reported in Pacific Standard,
”Asked if they would want to have an exact time stamp on their eventual death, 87.7 percent of Germans said no. Only 4.2 percent said yes, while 8.2 percent were uncertain.
“A similar percentage, 87.3 percent, did not want to know the cause of their death...
“Spanish participants'...answers on the negative news items were very similar to those of the Germans.”
In announcing the publication of the study, lead author, Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin wrote that “deliberate ignorance” is a “widespread state of mind” and
”...was more likely the nearer the event. For example, older adults were less likely than younger adults to want to know when they or their partner would die, and the the cause of death.”
That makes sense to me. Until 40 or so, most of us believe we are immortal so the idea of one's own death is mainly hypothetical. At my age now, nearly 76, death has become very real and recently, I find Gigerenzer's “deliberate ignorance” a state of mind I'm clinging to for - well, dear life.
Since mid-November, a mystery malady has been plaguing me. His disinterest in the many symptoms led me to fire my previous physician and I found a new one I like better. There is no obvious diagnosis so since late December, I have been undergoing the many tests he has arranged for me.
About once a week, sometimes twice, I drive to the giant medical center he is associated with for a screening – sometimes for blood, other times for x-rays of this or that body part and this week a bone scan.
These are not just to track down what my malady might be. It is also that because I've spent the greater part of my life avoiding doctors and most medical tests, the new doc wants a baseline for future reference.
I can't argue with that but here's the problem: I'm just about the best example you're ever going to find of Gigerenzer's “deliberate ignorance.”
In our brave new world of electronic medical records, I can find out the results of the tests almost by the time I drive home. And when that doesn't happen, they are posted by the next day when an email alerts me to their availability. It never fails – except -
Except once. And that's where my “deliberate ignorance” kicks in, leaving me now gasping in fear when I allow myself to think about that exception.
Every result so far has been in the healthy range of whatever was being tested. I've been incredibly lucky that way all my life.
But for all that good news, there was this: no email and nothing posted to my online medical records after the CT scan of my lungs for cancer two weeks ago. It's not that I've missed it. I check for it every morning.
Let's see if I can explain the emotion of this. With no posted results, I can live in (supposedly) happy “deliberate ignorance.” But not really. I smoked for many decades and three relatives died of various cancers so this test is more fraught that simple blood draws.
The question rolls around in my head: What could that anomalous missing report mean?
As my thinking goes, there must be something so terribly wrong with that CT scan that they don't want to cause a heart attack by having me read it at home alone.
I could email or phone the doctor but as much as this is eating at me, I also don't want to hear terrible news. So I wait and worry trying to be happy in my “deliberate ignorance” until my next scheduled doctor appointment in early March - which, given these circumstances I would rather skip so to remain in my "deliberate ignorance."
I'm fully aware that there could be other reasons for not posting scan results (although I can't figure what they would be). That doesn't help. And I am equally aware that my fear of a deadly diagnosis is not in keeping with my genuine relief at living in a state with an assisted suicide law, as we've discussed in these pages.
Inconsistency, thy name is human.
My uneasiness in this circumstance is not unique and the growing sophistication of medical tests and diagnoses will soon leave many more patients in similarly difficult emotional places at much younger ages, as the researchers note:
”...gene-based medicine 'will put more and more people into situations where they have to decide whether they want to know future health issues.'”
The reporter of the Pacific Standard story explained further:
”In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to discover whether we are prone to a variety of diseases. Knowing such information could help us make major life decisions in an informed, thoughtful way.
“But we can only take advantage of this information if we can...emotionally handle the knowledge of when and how we are likely to die. And when that subject is broached, our impulse seems to be to run as fast as we can in the other direction.”
Yup. That is exactly what I'm going through right now – terrified of a bad diagnosis that will turn me into a professional patient. I've been afraid of that for as long as I can remember.
The full study, co-authored by Rocio Garcia-Tetamero of the University of Granada, is available online in the Psychological Review. [pdf]