The Comfort of Ignorant Bliss

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My boyfriend's 17-year-old son came home from school yesterday all fired up about the Koran burning being planned by a small-time pastor and church in Florida this Saturday to mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 


"How can they be so stupid?" he asked, citing the predicted violence and risk to American lives abroad that would likely follow. 

It's a tough question, and a hard one to answer succinctly. There's a lot that goes into the development of extreme and rigid viewpoints in humans.

"Ignorance," I finally answered with a sigh. "Stubborn ignorance." 

"Why is that?" he asked. 

Why, indeed. There's certainly no lack of ignorance in the world, on just about every subject, issue and topic you could name--even ones that have a direct impact on individuals' lives. In a New Yorker column this summer, financial writer James Surowiecki reported that in recent surveys by a Dartmouth University economist, almost half the respondents couldn't answer two questions about inflation and interest rates correctly. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted recently that in 1996, a plurality of voters who were asked if the deficit had risen or fallen in the previous four years got the answer wrong. And that's not even getting into the reported 25 percent of Americans who still believe President Obama is secretly a Muslim or was born outside the U.S., or the town hall protesters who adamantly argued that the government should have nothing to do with their health insurance, even as they fought to keep their government-run Medicare benefits intact. 

In truth, the ignorance itself is somewhat understandable. Working adults -- especially those with children -- have only so much bandwidth to devote to keeping up with all the complex issues and events in the world. As Surowiecki pointed out, economists sometimes use the phrase "rational ignorance" to explain "inattention that is justified because the costs of paying attention outweigh the benefits." Or, at least, the perceived costs outweigh the benefits. In hindsight, there are a lot of sub-prime mortgagees whose costs of inattention turned out to be disastrously high.  

Harder to understand is the "stubborn" part of that ignorance; the tendency of some people to dig their heels four miles deep into their ignorance and vehemently defend it, and whatever worldview or seemingly rational actions come with it, to their last dying breath. If "the truth will set you free" (as the Bible itself says), why on earth do people fight so hard to hold on to the chains of ignorance?  

Part of the answer may be related to something Surowiecki called the Dunning-Kruger effect: a phenomenon in which "people who don't know much tend not to recognize their ignorance, and so fail to seek better information." That effect is often used to explain the bizarre positive correlation between ignorance and confidence (studies repeatedly show that the people most ignorant about a subject tend to have the greatest confidence that their knowledge about it is correct.) 

But stubborn ignorance goes beyond a simple failure to recognize gaps in knowledge and, therefore, fail to seek better information. It's an active effort to deny or dismiss better information. Why do people do that? Part of the answer is undoubtedly attributable to something called "motivated reasoning." (e.g. When a person encounters information that runs counter to their accepted worldview, the clash causes an uncomfortable level of "cognitive dissonance." To alleviate that discomfort, a person has to either alter their worldview or dismiss the new information. Since changing one's worldview is difficult and unsettling, people are often more motivated to dismiss or shut out the new information, instead).

Ignorance, in other words, is often more comfortable than knowledge. Or, at least, to a point. Knowledge, after all, is power. So why don't more people seek it? I think because the path to that power is not short. 

Somewhere along the line, I remember learning that there are four stages of knowledge. The first is when you don't know what you don't know. (Ignorance). The next stage, when you get shaken out of that blissful ignorance, is when you know what you don't know. The third stage, as you accumulate more knowledge but still are painfully aware of how much you don't know, is when you don't know what you know. And the fourth, which I call the Zen Master stage, is when you know what you know.

Unfortunately, the distance between ignorance and mastery is usually fairly long. And the only two positions in that process that are comfortable are the first, and the last. To surrender the comfort of ignorance is to step onto a path that will be uncomfortable for quite some time before the confidence of the Zen Master can be attained. And, of course, the cycle never ends. Even Zen Masters have to keep stepping out of their comfort zones in order to keep learning and retain the strong and nimble mind of a master.

Why do some people cling so stubbornly to ignorance? Because ignorance is bliss. It takes courage to be wise. 

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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