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A Psychologist's Take on Willful Ignorance

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.

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