Motivated Ignorance

Knowledge is power, but ignorance is bliss.

Posted Jan 16, 2013

Mary thinks her husband might be cheating but doesn’t check his emails. John has a lump in his armpit but doesn’t see a doctor. The tobacco companies work to suppress research on the effects of smoking on cancer. The government of Canada eliminates environmental research that might show negative effects of oil sands. These are all examples of motivated ignorance.

People easily succumb to motivated ignorance when their goals lead them to avoid learning potentially valuable information. Such avoidance of knowledge naturally happens with respect to important personal topics such as relationships and health. Motivated ignorance also operates at the social and political level, when organizations such as governments and companies work to ensure that some kinds of knowledge do not become available, as has happened with respect to climate change and the dangers of tobacco. Motivated ignorance is generally harmful to individuals and societies, but sometimes it can be rational, when knowledge that might be acquired would be predominantly damaging to human wellbeing.

Motivated ignorance is different from motivated inference, which occurs when people’s goals distort the conclusions they reach. The result of motivated ignorance is the avoidance of any conclusions altogether. Whereas the psychological mechanisms behind motivated inference have been worked out (see my book Hot Thought), no research has been done on the mechanisms that explain motivated ignorance. Nevertheless, it’s clear that motivated ignorance operates in all the domains that incline people toward motivated inference:

Romantic relationships: I’d rather not know about the affair.

Parenting: I don’t want to know about my teenagerssocial life.

Medicine: Going to the doctor is just a waste of time.

Politics: The leader’s personal life is no business of mine.

Sports: The star’s drug use is his own problem.

Research: It’s better not to check my citation count.

Law: Don’t ask don’t tell.

Religion: God is a mystery.

Economics: Better not to know about corruption.

In addition to this individual impact, motivated inference also operates systematically at the social level. The book Merchants of Doubt (by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway) describes how some businesses, governments, and even scientists have worked to maintain ignorance about strategic defense, acid rain, the ozone hole, the risks of tobacco and secondhand smoke, global warming, and pesticides. The study of culturally induced doubt or ignorance has been dubbed “agnotology”.  The philosophy book Race and the Epistemologies of Ignorance (edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana) explores how different forms of ignorance linked to race are produced and sustained. It would be fascinating to investigate how the social mechanisms of ignorance maintenance that operate in these domains interact with the psychological mechanisms that support motivated ignorance at the individual level. Stuart Firestein’s new book, Ignorance, explains how science is often driven by appreciation of gaps in knowledge.

In the social domains just described, it is clear that motivated ignorance is harmful to human well being. For example, ignoring global warming forestalls attempts to prevent its likely negative effects on billions of people. Oddly, however, at the individual level there seem to be cases where motivated ignorance is rational. Recent studies show that some highly recommended medical tests like PSA (prostate specific antigen) tests for prostate cancer and mammograms for breast cancer can cause more harm than good. I’m fortunate not to know my PSA level, because if it’s high I’m much more likely to suffer unnecessary biopsies and operations than to have my life saved by early treatment. How could you maintain a relationship with people you care about if you knew everything they think about you? Vast amounts of information, such as what Justin Bieber is twittering, just aren’t worth knowing about. Hence there is an open philosophical project to address the normative question: When is motivated ignorance good for people and when is it bad? The complementary psychological project concerns what goes on in people's minds when they rationally or irrationally avoid acquiring knowledge.  Both these projects should connect with the sociological project of describing the social processes that lead groups of people to foster ignorance.  

I hope this post motivates you to reduce ignorance about motivated ignorance.