The information gap theory explores motivational learning dynamics of how individuals react to revelations of gaps in their understanding. The theory suggests that when there is a gap or lack of information in a conversation or interaction, it creates a cognitive tension or uncertainty, motivating either curious investigations or defensive avoidance to resolve the tension.
The foundation of the theory is built on concepts of homeostasis. Basically, the concept refers to our physical bodies existing in a homeostatic state until forces interfere with the functioning, creating a cognitive and physical tension (emotional discomfort). Russell Golman and George Loewenstein explain that “when a person is aware of a specific unknown, it often attracts attention and evokes emotion” (2018). The new state of emotion and attention motivates action to bring the body back into homeostasis through resolving the information gap.
According to the information gap theory, uncertainty about future consequences of decisions creates a significant a gap in our knowledge and creates a physical arousal that we are motivated to resolve. We resolve disruptions from information gaps in a number of different ways by employing various cognitive and physical resources.
Information gap theory is a conceptual model of how people react to uncertainty either through curiously investigating possibilities or defensively engaging in avoidance.
History of Information Gap Theory
We can trace the concept of information gap theory in psychological literature back to William James. He proposed that William James “scientific curiosity arises from inconsistency or a gap in…knowledge, just as the musical brain responds to a discord in what it hears” (James, 1850/2017, p. 429). However, not until late twentieth century did psychology delve deeper into James’s fundamental concept of curiosity.
A prominent figure in the later development of the information gap theory is George Loewenstein. We can trace this theory back to a paper he published in 1994. Before Loewenstein, other studies examined students working together with different information on an assigned topic, researchers examined how each pair of students work together to fill in the missing information.
Of note, during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Yakov Ben-Haim proposed a mathematical version of information gap theory, building upon some of Loewenstein’s concepts. Ben-Haim’s theory and work are beyond the scope of this psychological presentation of information gap theory.
What is the Information Gap Theory?
Loewenstein, Gurney, and Golman define the information gap as “a question that one is aware of, but for which one is uncertain between possible answers” (2021). Accordingly, the theory does not apply to the multitude of circumstances of when we unconsciously encounter information gaps, as much new information flies over our heads without conscious recognition. Also, many defensive mechanisms engage before cognitive acknowledgement, protecting us from dissonance between conflicting information and preconceived beliefs. Whether we miss subject matter creating an information gap out of ignorance or denial, these states to not apply to this theory.
Basically, in topics of personal importance, information gaps (unanswered questions) drive curiosity to find the answers. However, not all information gaps equally motivate. Several factors play a role. Importance and salience of the gap strongly influence whether or not we pay attention. When we encounter a gap that is non-salient and unimportant, over environmental pulls draw attention away from the information gap and we move on.
In addition, personality may also play a significant role. According to some research, Some people are more sensitive to obtaining rewards than others. Individuals with a highly sensitive or strongly activated BAS (Behavior Activation System) tend to be more inclined towards experiencing positive emotions, seeking out new experiences, and taking risks. Conversely, others are more protective. They are motivated by the Behavioral Inhibition System which is activated by conditioned and unconditioned stimuli signaling punishment or non-reward. These people are cautious and protective (Murphy, 2023).
For some and in some situations, it is more psychologically soothing to explain away information gaps rather than actively curiously seek answers. Ego investment, sensitivities, and importance all intertwine to create either curiosity or lack of interest in filling the gaps.
Importance of Filling Missing Gaps
Unanswered questions vary in importance. The solutions have a variable utility. For instance, while watching a television show, we may curiously wonder what the name of an actor or actress is playing a particular role. This information gap has a low utility. However, public officials seeking the cause for a significant rise of cancer cases in a particular population, represents an information gap with high utility. Accordingly, the higher the perceived utility the more resources we willingly devote to filling the gap.
The importance of an information gap determines defines the level of risk. “The key question about which people are uncertain—the information gap—centers around the eventual outcome when the uncertainty is resolved” (Loewenstein, Gurney, and Goleman, 2021). Our perceived outcomes of finding a solution create the degree of perceived importance and risk.
Information Gap Theory and Curiosity
According to this theory, the information gap is a driving force that stimulates curiosity and promotes active engagement in an information gathering process. The more significant the information gap (especially in topics of interest), the stronger the motivation to fill it, leading to increased attention, involvement, and learning.
According to Loewenstein, curiosity arises “when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge.” He explains, “the curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation” (Loewenstein, 1994). “The magnitude of curiosity depends on the attention devoted to each information gap that stands to be addressed” (Golman and Loewenstein, 2018).
A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic
This theory has been widely applied in various fields, including education, advertising, and media. In education, teachers often use the information gap technique to encourage student participation and critical thinking by posing questions or presenting problems that require further investigation and exploration. In advertising, marketers utilize information gaps to create intrigue and curiosity in order to attract and engage consumers. And in the media, journalists leverage information gaps to capture audience attention and maintain interest in news stories.
By understanding the principles of the information gap theory, communicators can enhance their ability to engage and captivate their audience. Effective use of this theory can promote active participation and knowledge acquisition. Accordingly, through curiosity motivated by percieved information gaps, we gain a deeper understanding of important and relevant subject matter. In addition, with a mindful examination of the emotions associated with information gaps, we can better prioritize resources, devoting attention, effort, and time to those gaps with the most utility to our futures.
-James, William (1890/2017). The Principles of Psychology, Vols. 1-2. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Combined edition.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2023). Behavior Activation System. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-29-2023. Accessed 9-25-2023.