A Psychologist's Take on Willful Ignorance

Natural Lefty's picture

December 20

A Psychologist's Take on Willful Ignorance

According to a Psychology Today article, there are 3 types of ignorance, only one of which has a negative connotation (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-around-and-look-within/201111/willful-ignorance-penn-state-and-dont-ask-dont-tell).

The 3 types of ignorance are, according to Susan L. Smalley, the author of the article, "ordinary ignorance, willful ignorance, and higher ignorance." Ordinary ignorance means that somebody doesn't know something. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact, being "ignorant" of something commonly serves as a motivation to discover more knowledge. "Higher ignorance," seems to be a kind of extension of ordinary ignorance. Higher ignorance" is lofty in scope and hard to achieve—it is a reverence for the unknown—for mystery—or what may be unknowable." It recognizes, for instance, that no matter how much one knows about something, there are still more intricate details that one does not know. It asks the question also, what is knowable, and what, if anything is unknowable?

In contrast to ordinary of higher ignorance, willful ignorance occurs when a person knows the truth but chooses to ignore it, or the person refuses to abandon false beliefs and pursue the development of further knowledge. According to the Urban Dictionary. willful ignorance is: The practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguements because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=willful%20ignorance).

The urban dictionary gets political after this, which is where I am going with this. Specifically, it states "This practice is most commonly found in the political or religious ideologies of "conservative" Americans.

Many times it is practiced due to laziness--people not wanting to have to do the work to rethink their opinions, the fear of the unknown, the fear of being wrong, or sometimes simply close-mindedness.

alt. form: willfully ignorant."

In the Psychology Today article, Susan Smalley gives some interesting examples, although only tangentially political. She mentions the willful ignorance of football fans ignoring the shameful behavior of Jerry Sandusky, as though football is more important than integrity and the issue of sexual abuse. She also mentions prostitution, in which men gleefully engage in sex acts with women they don't even know -- women who are often virtual sex slaves who were forced into prostitution around the age of 12 or 13, as young adolescents. She asks how many men would have sex with prostitutes as they do, if they knew that easily knowable fact? I suspect that a sizeable percentage of men who are callous enough about sex to be patrons of prostitutes still would, even knowing that, but that is beside the point. Smalley also mentions the recently repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law as an example of willful ignorance being encouraged by government. She makes the point that many of our institutions encourage willful ignorance, at least regarding certain issues.

My search for information about willful ignorance, however, was more focused on social or personality psychology research on the topic, especially since I am a social/personality psychologist. I found out that no research has been done on this topic by name. However, I already know of a lot of information which relates to willful ignorance based on psychological research. For example, research tells us that some people are cognitively complex while others prefer cognitive simplicity, some people are open to experience while other are closed minded, and some people are cognively flexible while others are cognitively rigid. I think there is a clear inference that people who are cognitively simple, closed minded and/or rigid are much more likely to engage in willful ignorance. Essentially, these would be "stupid" people, but not necessarily people lacking in the ability to be smart; rather, they are most likely people who would rather be comfortably ignorant rather than smart.

How does this relate to politics? One finding from recent research is that conservatives tend to have lower IQs. Remember, lifestyle and personality can have a huge influence on IQ, so it is likely that conservatives essentially think less than do progressives. They ask fewer questions and engage in fewer truth seeking missions, on the whole. A corrolary to this is my personal, unproven but anecdotally supported hypothesis that conservatives are more likely to develop dementia. Another finding related to politics is the clear finding that the personality trait "Openness to Experience" (one of Costa and McCrae's Big 5 Personality Traits) is correlated with progressive attitudes, as well as with education, intelligence and creativity. I seem to recall further, that research on authoritarianism and conservatism found these traits to be linked to cognitive rigidity or simplicity.

Thus, observations that conservatives as well as people with fundamental religious beliefs tend to be willfully ignorant, are basically accurate. We see the cost of willful ignorance in political discussion as well as policy. Whether it is a person declaring the magical qualities of the "free market" or a belief in the unerring, literal truth of the Bible, whether it is people who think that human activities have no effect on climate and since God will take care of everything, there is no possibility of an ecological calamity occuring, or whatever form willful ignorance takes -- willful ignorance on the part of some, drags us all down. As much as knowledge seekers such as myself find willful ignorance to be utterly contemptible, there are reasons for the phenomenon of willful ignorance, though, as suggested by the Urban Dictionary. One reason is that people tend to be "cognitive misers." Most people tend not to examine things intellectually if they don't feel they have to. Another reason is conformity. People tend to believe what those around them believe, and questioning those beliefs would lead to conflict and likely rejection, and as any inscure adolescent knows, the last thing one would want to happen is to be a social reject (some of whom turn into mass murderers, by the way). On the other hand, there are large social rewards for conformity, even if being a conformist means being willfully ignorant. Conformists have all the greater potential to find a mate, or mates, to climb the social ladder of "success," to have others speak well of them and to enjoy the benefits of a social support system. That everybody who participates in a conformist community, may indeed be willfully ignorant and delusional in their conformity, does not change these facts. A third reason for being willfully ignorant is that we hate to be wrong. Admitting that one is wrong, causes cognitive dissonance, which is something to be avoided. Thus, people are often resistant to any evidence which contradicts their world view or belief system, rather than examine the evidence and modify their positions, which would require the person to experience and deal with cognitive dissonance.

What then, can we do to reduce willful ignorance? One thing we can do is to have a more intellectually oriented, education oriented society. Conservatives, consistent with their positions so often being dependent upon willful ignorance, in my opinion covertly want to make education less available while derogating the concept of a "liberal education." We need to make cheap-or-better-yet-free-education-for-all-at-all-levels, a priority, and nurture a culture of knowledge, intellect and education. This is a point that is so important, actually, that it is difficult to overemphasize. The progressive way forward requires a well educated public and electorate; otherwise, we will likely have a feudal futile future to look forward to. Another thing those among us who are not willfully ignorant can do, is to engage the willfully ignorant intellectually, as difficult and painful as that might be. Learning should be a lifelong process, so we should let all members of society participate in learning through discussions of matters of importance. While it may be difficult to change people's personalities or deeply ingrained willful ignorance, we should never underestimate people's capacity for change.

Comments

leighmf
leighmf's picture
Natural Lefty wrote: One

Natural Lefty wrote:

One finding from recent research is that conservatives tend to have lower IQs.

Didn't even need empirical data for that one.

When I was at NCSU, the school stationery bore a logo of an Aladdin's lamp with a mighty flame rising from the spout. I loved the stationery, but it was probably about three years before I understood the symbolism of the flame and knowledge. That may be because it takes three years to get through the basics and deeper into the meaty courses with knowledge that lights the dark corners of our brains.

Knowledge is light, Ignorance is dark. What can we do but strive to keep the home fires burning?

I'm shocked at the number of misspelled words on TV banners, the bad grammar, sentence fragments, and dangling participles emanating from highly paid, glamorized news broadcasters. Completely shocked!

They are allowed the errors elementary teachers of the fifties disgraced out of our heads. So why did I make perfect grades in these things, but people who are sloppy have the jobs?

Whether a fortunate thing or not, I have the perspective of having lived a half-century in the same county where my life began with a happy, fabulous public school education I expected my child would enjoy. We had a music room. We had square dancing. We had ceramics, and closets full of art and supplies every year. The first day of school we acquired clay, crayons, paste, construction paper, manila paper, scissors, popsicle sticks, all our own.

Today in Florida you have to BYO School Supplies or the teacher buys them from their own pocket. Kids have to carry every book they use on their backs in knapsacks.

People lie right and left about their addresses to get their children into the least of evil public schools. We had a terrible time getting our son through school- everybody does. I'm over it now, but 20 years later the mothers are lamenting even louder than I had.

Where I think the massive breakdown occurred between my generation and our son was the change from Elementary 1-6, Jr, High 7-9, and Senior High 10-12 to Middle School which put 6th graders with 8th graders, and 9th graders with 12th graders.

I wonder what you think of this, Natural-L, as a teacher of psychology, whether this change of oddly spaced maturity matching disrupted a system that had been working quite well and had come a long way from the one-room schoolhouse?

 

Natural Lefty
Natural Lefty's picture
I know, Leigh, to us

I know, Leigh, to us progressives, a lot of this stuff would seem like common sense, but others will dispute it. Actually, the willfully ignorant will probably just find a way to ignore this information. Anyway, the research is out there and it keeps accumulating.

I would extend the list of people who make grammatical errors to many professional writers, as well. A lot of them do it knowing full well that they are being gramatically incorrect. For emphasis, you know. Or just because it seems "cool."  Or to be more succinct by leaving certain words implicit. Those incomplete sentences, you know.

The state of public schooling is sadly impoverished compared to what it was in the 1950s and 1960s, although we do have new technologies such as computers which have the potential to greatly enhance learning. Ask Zenzoe about what her daughter-in-law does to help her elementary school age children at their public school here in CA (Escondido). There was also a documentary about California's public schools which talked about how teachers and parents these days are having to do and pay for things that they should not have to. However, the last time I tried to locate this documentary on the internet, I was unable to.

When I went to grade school, junior high was only 7th and 8th grades, and high school was 9th-12th grades. I don't think that was a problem, although obviously, I wouldn't have known any better at the time. I think the main problems are derogating education -- or at least not properly valuing it -- and the corresponding conservative led government-cutting, defunding of education. I think I mentioned elsewhere on this site the continuing deficit of classes at the community college where I teach. It's supposed to get better with Proposition 30 having passed, but so far, it has not. I did hear some good news today, although it wasn't definite. I went to school to return a notebook a student had left in class, and the only employees there were a couple of people I am friendly with there. One of them told me that he heard more classes are likely to be added to the spring semester schedule, but we shall have to wait and see.

I spoke with my environmentalist brother, Bruce, yesterday, and he had some good information for me about the land. California has a website with the environmental impact reports, and he thinks it even has information about the concerns of land developers as well. He also said that there is an organization called The Center for Biological Diversity, which is very interested in buying environmentally sensitive desert land like this, or if they don't, they will probably know who would like to buy it.

I didn't know you had a kid before. That's good to know. I gather that he is an adult by now.

 

 

Scappoose
Scappoose's picture
I put the definition of

I put the definition of "Willful Ignorance" on both republicans and democrats when they moan about one party non-stop but when Their party gets in power all of a sudden develop blinders for the Very Same Policies.

Frankly hearing about how much 'smarter' democrats are than republicans is tired - at least if we empirically look at the response of the democrat in the last 4 years in contrast to the constant protestations for all they supposedly held sacred during the Bush years.

I believe it has shown the Obama Hope and Change to be nothing more than a highly effective PR stunt of, by and for EMPIRE that democartic supporters fell for hook, line and sinker and are still hooked, worn out from the current and drifting helplessly, waiting for the gentle release or the thunk on the head.

Hope and Change won the Obama team many PR awards.   Although when people knowingly turn a blind eye to the truth and refuse to acknowledge it we need to thank Society and not any one PR campaign.

Hence Genocide since 1492 is seen as Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism and as such is A-Ok even today when the truth is easily discoverable.

 

Alberto Ceras 2
Alberto Ceras 2's picture
How about adding another

How about adding another category? Those who are willfully ignorant of being willfully ignorant?

There’s the willful ignorance that some TH “liberals” have demonstrated in their defense of the most illiberal Obama. Thanks to malencid (who says correctly that it fits Thom to a "T") for bringing this article to our attention (see below). You cannot defend either Obama or Israel and then legitimately claim to be liberal or progressive. Here's the web address for the article and John R. MacArthur's opening paragraph:

http://harpers.org/blog/2012/12/liberals-back-to-giving-obama-a-pass/

December 19, 2012, 4:42 pm

Liberals Back to Giving Obama a Pass

By John R. MacArthur

"If I were to describe a president who escalated a cruelly pointless war, raised more than twice as much campaign money from large individual donors as from small ones (including more than $27 million from lawyers and lobbyists), engaged in widespread violations of civil liberties and the Constitution, and whose most vaunted legislative achievements were to protect banks and pave the way for transfers of large amounts of money from the public treasury to private insurance companies, you would probably assume I was talking about a right-wing Republican."

But no. he's talking about the right-wing Democrat, Obama.

Here are web addresses for the two “The Nation” articles referenced by MacArthur. You don't read "The Nation?" It's one of the few truly liberal journals still in print.:

“The Grand Betrayal?”, by Robert Borosage: http://blog.ourfuture.org/20121115/grand-bargain-betrayal

(Borosage calls it “chump change” while I called it “small change” but the idea’s the same.)

“How to Save the Democratic Party” L. R. Runner: http://www.thenation.com/article/171613/how-save-democratic-party

(But, then, is it worth saving?)

We had a lengthy discussion, Natural Lefty, of Obama and his administration a few days ago on your blog “The Human Rorschach Test.” Remember? I thought that there was some slight evidence of willful ignorance there: http://www.thomhartmann.com/users/natural-lefty/blog/2012/11/human-rorschach-test#comments

Here’s Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich as reported by Common Dreams yesterday, Dec. 20. By all means read the comments that follow.:

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/12/20-3

Published on Thursday, December 20, 2012 by Common Dreams

Sen. Bernie Sanders: 'Mr. President, I am Disappointed'

Remember when President Obama promised not to cut Social Security benefits? Remember when president-hopeful Barack Obama promised not to cut Social Security benefits?

 - Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Natural Lefty
Natural Lefty's picture
I think politicians are some

I think politicians are some of the most willfully ignorant people, so yes, I think it is both parties, Scappoose. one of my graduate school advisor's more recent graduate students, was doing her dissertation on something like legalistic versus scientific thinking. I almost thought of including it in this essay, but I never found out what her results were. Anyway, apparently she was basing her dissertation research on findings that legalistic thinkers care more about other things than the truth, things such as "what's in it for me?" Meanwhile, scientific thinkers care most about the truth. I think the potential connection to willful ignorance here is pretty apparent, and this topic might be worthwhile for me to investigate on the internet. This issue is also illustrative of why I think it's such a shame that most politicians are lawyers. They care most about "What's in it for themselves," for the most part, although I believe there are some exceptions. We had an encouraging result locally, when Mark Takano, a teacher and member of the board of trustees at the community college where I teach, and apparently fairly progressive, won a seat in the House of Representatives in the recent election. This is the first case of a teacher I can think of being elected to Congress. He is also a Japanese-American and part of a growingly diverse Congress. Perhaps the old ways of doing things in U.S. government will break down in the coming years. That is my hope, at least. By the way, the Takano versus Tavaglione race kept being pronounced "too close to call" by the pre-election polls, but Takano won 57% of the vote in the actual election. I think we also need more people from various walks of life in Congress, especially highly intelligent, scientifically minded people.

 The research study didn't say that Democrats are smarter than Republicans, Scappoose. It said that progressives were smarter than conservatives. But based on your response, you seem to accept that Democrats are more progressive than Republicans, which I think is true to a degree, but not as true as we would like it to be. I think American politics is more conservative than, and lagging behind the American public.

Hello Alberto. As you can see, I went ahead with the Willful Ignorance post finally. I have been very busy. It's hard to believe I hadn't written a blog post in 15 days. In my family, we are now having an issue with attorneys, doctors and professional fiduciaries or "conservators" possibly wanting to take control of my parents' affairs. My brothers and I all want me to be given Power of Attorney in order to prevent that from happening. (This is actually my eldest brother's idea.) My mother seems to be resolutely against the idea of anybody else having Power of Attorney, so all is not well here.

Speaking of being willfully ignorant of being willfully ignorant, I mentioned the same thing in a response on Facebook. I think people who are willfully ignorant, would tend to ignore evidence of such, anyway. I think maybe they need a slap in the face by reality, which is what eventually happens when people act willfully ignorant.

leighmf
leighmf's picture
I am a Quote clod. "Or to be

I am a Quote clod.

"Or to be more succinct by leaving certain words implicit. Those incomplete sentences, you know." - NL

Do I know? Boy, do I know!  I think this has come of the 1980's imbalance of Choose Your Own Adventure Books in place of classic children's literature. It was the age of letting children choose their own everything. Nowadays we have to make up the end of movie plots and tv scripts which go episodes into nowhere. We have to finish our own songs.

My so-wise voice teacher used to say in exquisite Bostonian overtones, "They don't know how to resolve a composition anymore."

"California has a website with the environmental impact reports, and he thinks it even has information about the concerns of land developers as well. He also said that there is an organization called The Center for Biological Diversity, which is very interested in buying environmentally sensitive desert land like this, or if they don't, they will probably know who would like to buy it." NL

If you can sell ESLs anywhere, its CA. You have environmental support  groups and species preservers galore, as well as professors. An educated guess is the developer found too many costly obstacles to mitigate. But it would be ever so much better to sell the land as preserved. With footwork, you might get a federal grant to dedicate the land as a permanent easement which cannot be developed. That would stay with your Title, though, and future buyers would have to abide by the dedication.

"I didn't know you had a kid before. That's good to know. I gather that he is an adult by now." NL

Yes- I'm glad I had him before- before I was too old to take it. At 35 now, he is almost an adult, and a senior level programmer, self-taught. He taught himself Basic at age 7 which was half our trouble in school. By middle school he couldn't hold a pencil, but could type at the speed of light. He knew every computer language by high school when the principal suggested we take him out (age 16) because he had already learned more than they could provide, and he would only get mixed up with the idle crowd. Such a choice we had!

Natural Lefty
Natural Lefty's picture
Leigh, is your son single?

Leigh, is your son single? Have we got a gal for him! Not that I would expect he would be interested. Why is it that my friends keep having kids who are too smart for school? I guess it's that progressive genius thing.

I am glad to know that we have such good environmental protection support here in California. I think it will prove to be crucial in our land situation. Pursuing the investigation of what happened with the land deal, and what could be done with the land, is on my agenda for the near future.