Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Ignorance

The less people know about important complex issues such as the economy, energy consumption and the environment, the more they want to avoid becoming well-informed, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

And the more urgent the issue, the more people want to remain unaware…

Through a series of five studies…the researchers described “a chain reaction from ignorance about a subject to dependence on and trust in the government to deal with the issue”…

To test the links among dependence, trust and avoidance, researchers provided either a complex or simple description of the economy to a group of 58 Canadians, mean age 42, composed of 20 men and 38 women. The participants who received the complex description indicated higher levels of perceived helplessness in getting through the economic downturn, more dependence on and trust in the government to manage the economy, and less desire to learn more about the issue.

“This is despite the fact that, all else equal, one should have less trust in someone to effectively manage something that is more complex,” said co-author Aaron C. Kay, PhD, of Duke University. “Instead, people tend to respond by psychologically ‘outsourcing’ the issue to the government, which in turn causes them to trust and feel more dependent on the government.  Ultimately, they avoid learning about the issue because that could shatter their faith in the government.”

Ignorance Is Bliss When it Comes to Challenging Social Issues – APA

These studies imply that an effective response to environmental and economic crises must take into account a not merely passively ignorant public, but one that is actively ignorant of existential risks.

I’m put in mind of UCLA geographer Jared Diamond’s exploration of the collapse of the Norse colonies on Greenland in the 15th century, mostly due to their refusal to adopt new cultural practices more suited to their changing environment:

Why did the Norse choose not to eat fish? Because they weren’t thinking about their biological survival. They were thinking about their cultural survival. Food taboos are one of the idiosyncrasies that define a community. Not eating fish served the same function as building lavish churches, and doggedly replicating the untenable agricultural practices of their land of origin. It was part of what it meant to be Norse, and if you are going to establish a community in a harsh and forbidding environment all those little idiosyncrasies which define and cement a culture are of paramount importance.

“The Norse were undone by the same social glue that had enabled them to master Greenland’s difficulties,” Diamond writes. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.”

I would suggest that the shibboleth of consumerism generates the active ignorance necessary for trust in a global socioeconomic system barreling towards environmental and economic crises every bit as menacing as those that collapsed the society of the Greenland Norse. Our public faith in this system to right itself is perhaps the most critical risk.

The full compendium of the five studies (“On the Perpetuation of Ignorance: System Dependence, System Justification, and the Motivated Avoidance of Sociopolitical Information”) is available here.

This entry was posted in Accountability, Climate Change, Degrowth Economics, Environmental policy, Occupy Wall Street, Philosophy & Politics, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security, TechnoScience & Technoscientism. Bookmark the permalink.

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