Given the cultural lip service in the United States to the importance of education, you might think that ignorance is uniformly undesirable. In principle, we should seek to improve our knowledge in all circumstances. However in recent months, with the disaster that has hit the global economy, ignorance may be more blissful than one would have thought.

Every time I look at my retirement account, mostly going down but sometimes bouncing up a tick with some new announcement, my anxiety tracks the inverse of the indices. On mentioning this to my colleagues, they all say the same thing: Just don't look at it. Clearly this seems like good advice for reducing anxiety but of course we are constantly bombarded by economic news every day suggesting that we better keep an eye on things. "Just don't look" seems like a kind of intentional ignorance on the order of the proverbial ostrich's head in the sand. Can it ever be wise to put blinders on?

When we think of wisdom we probably think of sage advice, insightful judicial rulings, and prescient public policy. We probably do not think about turning a blind eye to a disaster in the making. Can advice be wise when it leads to an act that is both self-serving and increases our ignorance?

If you have no control over an event and cannot take preemptive action, perhaps the ostrich method may be wise. The active choice to not look at something exerts cognitive control in a situation that otherwise offers few avenues of control. While this may seem like an illusion of control rather than real control, it is the exertion of will to execute an intentional action. The action is real and likely involves a sense of effort in the exertion of willpower akin to not eating an offered cupcake in the midst of a diet. Certainly it engages prefrontal regions of the brain involved in behavioral regulation and cognitive control. The sense of control in a situation with bad outcomes may be very important in avoiding a feeling of helplessness which may help in preventing depression.

On its face there seems to be no rational reason for intentional ignorance. But once you understand that there can be negative consequences for some kinds of information (that you cannot act on), that certain kinds of acts can become habitual even when bad for you, and that making choices to not engage in those acts can be beneficial, the reasons become clear. This kind of analysis, taking into account insight and foresight, longer term outcomes, and balancing cognitive and affective processes, may be what makes this an example of wisdom.

Questioning Wisdom

Exploring the scientific basis of wisdom.
Howard C. Nusbaum, Ph.D.

Howard Nusbaum is a cognitive psychologist who studies language use, decision making, sleep, and learning.

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