The Science Behind 'Ignorance Is Bliss'

Experts explain why people avoid seeking knowledge at times

Experts at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have recently determined that the less people know about a complex topic, the less likely they are to want to start learning about it. They unconsciously perceive new information on these topics as threatening.

The team detailed its findings in the latest issue of a paper published by the American Psychological Association (APA). Experts conducted a total of 5 studies on the issue, which were all published at once, in the latest online issue of the APA journal Personality and Social Psychology.

This investigation sheds an entirely new light on the popular expression “ignorance is bliss.” The work showed that issues such as energy consumption, climate change, the environment or the economy are some of the complex issues less-knowledgeable people prefer not to learn more about.

A total of 511 participants were selected for the five studies, which were conducted in the United States and Canada in 2010 and 2011. What is extremely interesting is that the team was able to discover what it refers to as a “chain reaction” in people's thoughts.

This reaction makes people who are ignorant of a particular complex subject more likely to trust and depend on the government to handle the issue. Obviously, this seldom happens for the general good, as the American economy and climate change stances clearly demonstrate.

“Our research suggests that people may be hesitant to seek out information that is threatening. For the individual who has lost a job, there is a lot of motivation to believe that the government can get the economy back on track,” UWO psychologist and study team member Steven Shepherd explains.

“To hear information suggesting that the government cannot do this, or that the recession is going to be a long term issue, is not particularly reassuring,” he adds. As such, people prefer to shield themselves from even potentially-negative information.

In some cases, they do so vehemently, picking any type of argument they come across to support their point of view. This is obvious in the case of so-called climate change-related debates. The actual debates on the issue – the scientific ones – concluded long ago, so the current ones are of no consequence.

“The psychological processes shown in our research may contribute to the public's unawareness about various issues, and the discrepancy between what people know about various issues like the economy and the environment, and how important these issues are,” Shepherd explains.

The new data also indicates that it may be in the government's or corporations' interest to make issues seem more complex than they actually are, in order to decrease public interest in them. This would also make people less likely to keep the former accountable for their courses of action, Medill reports.

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