Motivated ignorance – is ignorance better than knowing?

If it’s true that the cat wasn’t killed by curiosity and that ignorance was to blame (see last month’s blog) then it follows that we should better educate the cat if it is to avoid an untimely death. But what if the cat chooses to remain ignorant?

Ignorant – lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated.

In a paper published last February, Daniel Williams puts forward a very challenging and slightly worrying proposition, that when the costs of acquiring knowledge outweigh the benefits of possessing it, ignorance is rational. In simple terms this suggests that people are not “stupid”, or ignorant, when they are unaware of something, they are in fact being logical and rational, effectively choosing not to learn.

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley

Beware the man of a single book St. Thomas Aquinas
In terms of education this is clearly very important, but it has far wider implications for some of the challenges we are facing in society today. There is an increasing divergence in opinion across the world with people holding diametrically opposite views, both believing the other is wrong. We can probably attach personas to these groups, on the one side there are the knowledgeable and well educated, on the other those who may not be in possession of all the facts but trust their emotions and believe in community and identity. The two groups are clear to see, those that believe in climate change and those that don’t, Trump supporters and anyone but Trump supporters, take the vaccine or anti-vaccine.

The stakes could not be higher.

“Ignorance is a lot like alcohol. The more you have of it, the less you are able to see its effect on you.” – Jay Bylsma

Motivated ignorance
The idea that choosing to be ignorant could be both logical and rational is not new. In his book An Economic Theory of Democracy first published in 1957 Anthony Downs used the term “rational ignorance” for the first time to explain why voters chose to remain ignorant about the facts because their vote wouldn’t count under the current political system. The logic being that it was rational to remain ignorant if the costs of becoming informed, in this case the effort to read and listen to all the political debate outweigh the benefits, of which the voters saw none.

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” – Robert Orben

Daniel Williams is making a slightly different point; he argues that motivated ignorance is a form of information avoidance. The individual is not remaining ignorant because the costs of obtaining the information are too high, they are actively avoiding knowledge for other reasons. He also goes on to say that if you are avoiding something it follows that you were aware of its existence in the first place, what the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently referred to as a known unknown.

We need one final piece of the jigsaw before we can better understand motivated ignorance, and that is motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoners reach pre-determined conclusions regardless of the evidence available to them. This is subtly different to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only notice information that coincides with pre-existing beliefs and ignores information that doesn’t.

If motivated reasoning is the desire to seek out knowledge to support the conclusions you want, motivated ignorance is the opposite, it is the desire to avoid knowledge in case it gives you the “wrong” answer. For example, although you might feel ill, you avoid going to the doctors to find out what’s wrong because you don’t want to know what the doctor might say.

The question that we should ask is, why don’t you want to know the answer? The implication here is that something is stopping you, in this instance perhaps the emotional cost of the doctor’s prognosis is greater than the gain. Similar examples can be found in other domains, the husband who doesn’t ask as to his wife’s whereabouts because he is afraid, she is having an affair, and doesn’t want it confirmed, although in reality she might have just been late night shopping!

“If ignorance is bliss, there should be more happy people.” – Victor Cousin

The idea that we should always seek out knowledge to be better informed clearly has its limitations and that far from being illogical motivated ignorance has some degree of rationality.

What have we learned?
Human beings do not strive to answer every question nor have within their grasp all the knowledge that exists. We are selective based on how much time we have available, how we might like to feel and, in some instances, the social groups we would like to belong. There is always a sacrifice or trade-off for knowledge and sometimes the price might be considered too high.

The answer to ignorance is not to throw more information at the problem in an attempt to make the ignorant more enlightened. If you don’t believe in climate change, not even a well-crafted documentary by David Attenborough is likely to help If the motivation for choosing ignorance is not addressed. This over supply of information was evident in the Brexit debate here in the UK. For those who had “made up their mind”, providing very powerful arguments by equally powerful captains of industry as to why leaving Europe was a bad idea failed to educate because most chose not to listen.

The role of education and learning has to be inspiration and curiosity, we need to get closer to those underlying motivational barriers and break them down. We have to help people appreciate the feeling you get as a result of challenging your views and coming out the other side with a better and possibly different answer. There is a need to move away from the competitive nature of right and wrong and the idea that changing your mind is a sign of weakness.

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”- attributed to J Maynard Keynes

And maybe we have to accept that although there is a price to pay whatever it is, it will be worth it.

“no people can be both ignorant and free.” – Thomas Jefferson

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