Ignorance Is Bliss?

The less people know about important complex issues such as the economy, energy consumption and the environment, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

And the more urgent the issue, the more people want to remain unaware, according to a paper published online in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"These studies were designed to help understand the so-called 'ignorance is bliss' approach to social issues," said author Steven Shepherd, a graduate student with the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "The findings can assist educators in addressing significant barriers to getting people involved and engaged in social issues."

You can regard this post as an adjunct to my important essay "The Optimist's Brain". That article noted that humans normally deflect or bury unwanted, pessimistic (albeit realistic) inputs. What level of ignorance are we dealing with here?

Individuals are often confronted with information that they do not know how to comprehend or evaluate, even though this information can be of critical importance to the self (or society as a whole). In the case of energy, nearly 40% of respondents in a Public Agenda (2009) survey could not identify a fossil fuel. Nearly one third could not identify a renewable energy source and incorrectly believed that solar energy contributes to global warming. This lack of knowledge should be of concern to these individuals, as 89% of respondents worry about increasing fuel costs, and 71% worry about global warming.

Even I was taken aback by that stunning result - 40% of those surveyed could not identify a single fossil fuel! One's ignorance on this subject could be remedied by asking Google what is a fossil fuel? It's that simple. Most of these ignorant humans undoubtedly have an opinion - it is often a strong opinion - about anthropogenic climate change.

We can learn more by reading the abstract (summation).

How do people cope when they feel uninformed or unable to understand important social issues, such as the environment, energy concerns, or the economy? Do they seek out information, or do they simply ignore the threatening issue at hand? One would intuitively expect that a lack of knowledge would motivate an increased, unbiased search for information, thereby facilitating participation and engagement in these issues - especially when they are consequential, pressing, and self-relevant.

I think these APA scientist guys need to get out of the house more, take off those white lab coats and stroll among the people, observing as they go. If they did, they would quickly discover that there's no reason whatsoever to expect that - intuitively or experientially - a lack of knowledge motivates an "unbiased" search for information. That might be the case for scientists in the general case, but this expectation certainly wouldn't apply to the man in the street (non-academics).

And of course "unbiased" research can hardly be said to exist. You might be amazed at the number of stories I don't cover on DOTE because a cursory investigation reveals that the story (or analysis) is simply bullshit (based on a false premise or alleged fact).

Back to the abstract -

However, there appears to be a discrepancy between the importance/self-relevance of social issues and people's willingness to engage with and learn about them. Leveraging the literature on system justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994), the authors hypothesized that, rather than motivating an increased search for information, a lack of knowledge about a specific sociopolitical issue will (a) foster feelings of dependence on the government, which will (b) increase system justification and government trust, which will (c) increase desires to avoid learning about the relevant issue when information is negative or when information valence is unknown.

In other words, the authors suggest that ignorance - as a function of the system justifying tendencies it may activate - may, ironically, breed more ignorance...
Is it truly surprising that ignorance is self-reinforcing? I think not. Ignorance is the default case. How many people learn anything important about the world they live in after the age of 18, outside of specific skills acquired in college or practicing a trade? Very few. And Ignorance + an Optimist's Brain = Disaster. A picture is worth a thousand words.

What I found interesting about this study was the self-reinforcing "trust in government" part. According to various surveys I've seen, trust in government is at an all-time low. (Congressional job approval currently stands at 12.7%!) That's if you ask people whether they trust the government. However, at least 50% of them are going to vote in the 2012 elections, indicating that this substantial segment of the population does indeed trust the government to solve their problems.

Thus if the government is not solving their problems under the current regime, it's simply a matter of tossing the bums out and electing a new set of self-serving posers who are not going to solve their problems. Our insane, pointless four-year election cycle has all the intelligence of a washing machine - wash, rinse and repeat.

Avoiding learning about the relevant issue when information is negative does not increase due to increasing trust in the government's ability to solve our problems, as specified in (c) in the abstract. Avoiding negative information is a hallmark of our species. See "The Optimist's Brain". What increases is the desire to stick with one's psychological habits, along with fear of the unknown. We might call this cognitive hardening of the arteries. That's an altogether natural process, especially when people are confronted with a barrage of negative information they can't do anything about (as in this study). People dig in, not out.

Trust in government - in authority figures or ruling institutions - does not increase desires to avoid learning if there's no desire to learn anything in the first place. That's another hallmark of our species. As always, when I say these sorts of things I am talking about the general rule of thumb. The rare exceptions only serve to prove that rule.

And when people are motivated to figure out what's going on, it's usually due to a simple desire to make money. Think about investor types. Even these people are relatively rare in the general population.

As we know in 2012, and are likely to find out with a vengeance in the near future, ignorance is not bliss. More precisely, ignorance appears to be bliss right up to the moment when it's not - that terrifying moment when Reality rears its ugly head. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, and during the preceding 30 years of the Empire's decline, lots of Americans have learned that lesson the hard way. But denial is resilient.

Therefore, millions more of our fellow Americans will find out to their great dismay that ignorance isn't bliss in the future. They won't have long to wait until they are on the receiving end of this hard lesson about life.