Do you really want to find out which of your work colleagues will receive the highest bonus at the end of the year or which illness you might be at risk of? Because willful ignorance serves to protect one’s psyche.
Without curiosity you can’t get anywhere. This drive has allowed humanity to develop medicines, vehicles, philosophy, and the Internet. The global internet means that more and more people have access to more information than ever before.
You might think that it is essential to use all available knowledge to overcome the complex challenges of the modern world. But how is it possible that people knowingly ignore some information? One of the few philosophers who could make sense of such ignorance was Friedrich Nietzsche. Already in the 19th century he provocatively asked whether ignorance was more useful than knowledge for a successful life.
What may seem strange is now being investigated empirically: willful ignorance. Cognitive scientist Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Human Development in Berlin began working on this topic almost twenty years ago in Switzerland. During surveys as part of two master’s theses, which he supervised as a professor of psychology at the University of Basel, it became clear that many students preferred not to know certain, rather interesting, things, he says. “Even then I was convinced that we had come across a very interesting and complex psychological phenomenon.”
But where does willful ignorance occur in everyday life? What reasons are behind the phenomenon? And maybe some of the knowledge doesn’t really contribute to our well-being, orientation in our complex environment and proper coexistence?
Even children don’t want to know everything
Studies show that it is surprisingly often the case that people ignore information. “Sometimes the reasons for this are harder to understand,” explains Ralph Hertwig. In many cases, however, people didn’t want to know certain facts for perfectly reasonable reasons. “For example, would you like to know which of your co-workers received the highest bonus at the end of the year?”, he asks. “Or what if you have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s?”
Many test subjects answer no to such questions in studies. So there are obviously more important motivations than human curiosity. This phenomenon has also been demonstrated in an ongoing study in children, who are generally considered particularly curious.
For example, the researchers asked schoolchildren aged eight to fourteen to imagine the following situation: “You are playing with other children. After a while, your mother calls you, you leave the room and when you come back, your favorite toy is broken. Do you want to know who broke it?” At least 87% of children answered yes. But only 73% said they would investigate further if their playmates didn’t want to tell.
If the playmates were close friends, the tendency to want to discover the culprit was decidedly lower, says psychology professor Azzurra Ruggeri, one of those responsible for the investigation. “Our results so far clearly show that children consciously prefer to leave some things unknown.”
People who don’t want to know things are often seen as immature, ethically questionable and imprudent, the psychology professor says.
What about adults? Over thirty years ago the files of the secret services of the former GDR were made public. Since then, over two million people in Germany have exercised their right of access. However, the majority probably did not take advantage of this opportunity. Ralph Hertwig and Dagmar Ellerbrock, history professors and co-authors of the study, estimate that more than five million former GDR citizens believed that a Stasi dossier existed on them. Why does the supposed majority choose not to inspect it?
Hertwig and Ellerbrock interviewed 161 men and women about the background to their decision. Some cited political motivations. They criticized, for example, the fact that the GDR was often reduced exclusively to its secret services and methods, especially by people from West Germany, and did not want to encourage this reduction. More than half of those interviewed cited the fear that people close to them might spy on them as the reason. So they were afraid of learning things through these files that would make them very sad or angry.
“Intentional ignorance is often about emotion regulation,” explains Ralph Hertwig. “It is above all about preventing possible negative feelings.” To protect your psyche. So, ultimately, what about cowardice? The psychology professor smiles. He refrains from making such assessments. People who don’t want to know things are often seen as immature, ethically questionable and imprudent, he says. From his perspective, however, such general judgments fall short.
In many areas of life, willful ignorance brings both opportunities and risks, he says: for example when it comes to health. Many people do not take advantage of preventive tests, even if their health insurance covers the costs. Some are afraid of a possible negative diagnosis. Others find spending time in the waiting room annoying. In the case of glaucoma, for example, this can be a mistake. If this optic nerve disease is detected in the early stages, its progression can often be stopped with special eye drops.
Hypertherapy is very widespread in medicine
However, the value of other preventive tests should be considered carefully, says Hertwig: The use of ultrasound diagnostics for early diagnosis of ovarian cancer, for example, has not led in recent years to fewer women dying from such cancers, as a study from the United States has shown. And 6 correct diagnoses out of 1,000 participants were compared to 32 women whose healthy ovaries had been removed by surgery due to a misdiagnosis.
Overdiagnosis and overtherapy are widespread in modern medicine. “Intentional ignorance can sometimes be a good strategy, especially if – and I am aware of the irony of this wording – it is based on adequate background knowledge, as in the example of early detection of ovarian cancer,” says Ralph Hertwig.
In the application process, omitting certain information often leads to greater equal opportunity. An important reason why there are now many more women employed in classical orchestras than in previous decades was the introduction of “blind auditions”: candidates play music behind a curtain, so that the jury evaluates only the quality of the musical performance and other characteristics – such as genre – are not important.
“Blind auditions” mean that more women are now employed in orchestras.
These approaches also bring improvements in other areas. Studies show that last name, age and gender have a strong influence on who is invited to job interviews. Once this obstacle has been overcome, it is often possible to break down prejudices through personal contact and increase equal opportunities.
Thorough and careful weighing does not necessarily always lead to better judgments, simply because the numerous factors are usually all associated with uncertainty.
In the United States and Canada, anonymized requests (without photos or age and gender information) have been the norm for decades. Corresponding pilot projects have also been launched in Germany. More older people, women and people with a migrant background are readily given the opportunity to appear at job interviews. Institutional willful ignorance leads to greater equity here.
This approach should also be tested in Zurich: in autumn 2021 the city’s finance department was tasked with clarifying the framework conditions in this regard. This summer, news broke that such an experiment would be abandoned. The authorities’ IT software does not allow the anonymisation of files and switching to another system is too expensive.
But – apart from equal opportunities for applications – before making really important decisions shouldn’t one collect all the relevant factors and compare them with each other, i.e. practice the opposite of willful ignorance? Ralph Hertwig shakes his head. “A thorough and careful evaluation does not necessarily always lead to better judgments, simply because the numerous factors are usually all associated with uncertainty.” Simple “adaptive heuristics” – one might also say: rules of thumb – often prove more useful, especially when making difficult decisions.
A good example is the stock market: American economist Harry Markowitz received the 1990 Nobel Prize in economics for developing a mathematically sophisticated investment method that requires the estimation of numerous properties of the available stock portfolio, as Hertwig explains. “But he himself did not use this model as part of his pension plan.” Instead, Markowitz ignored all information about investment options and simply invested the same amount of money in all stocks and funds in question. “With this radical strategy of deliberate ignorance, he has been quite successful in the stock market.”
Anyone who invests the same amount everywhere instead of gathering a lot of knowledge will certainly be successful in the stock market.
Abstinence from the internet is good for you
Nice and good. But can’t ignoring information also lead people to rely on their own prejudices and, for example, ignore anything that doesn’t correspond to their political opinion? “We are aware of this danger,” says Ralph Hertwig. Willful ignorance is “obviously not a panacea.” This strategy should be “used critically and selectively”.
But he and his team attach great importance to the method, especially when surfing the Internet. “In the digital world, information is no longer scarce, but is constantly available in abundance,” says philosopher Anastasia Kozyreva. However, the human ability to pay attention remains a limited resource.
“Social networks capture our attention by fueling curiosity, indignation or anger. The longer our eyes remain glued to the screen, the more advertising they can show us and the greater the profits will be”, explains the researcher. “We urgently need strategies to regain at least a certain degree of autonomy”. The phases of abstinence from the Internet and Deliberate ignorance is a good approach.