Motivated ignorance is when we just don’t want to know certain facts, oftentimes because we do not want to face certain situations or deal with certain realities. Motivated ignorance differs slightly from motivated inference, which is when people’s objectives or pre-existing beliefs twist the conclusions they reach. With motivated ignorance, the desire is to avoid being forced to come to any conclusion at all.
Motivated ignorance occurs most often in relationships or in health. People frequently choose to live in denial about certain aspects of their partner’s or their own lifestyle habits. This is usually because they choose to believe confronting unpleasant but potentially valuable information would result in facing conclusions that would be overwhelming or highly disruptive. The preference is to kick the can down the road as long as possible.
Living in denial is far from totally irrational. If there truly is nothing you can do and the knowledge would be deeply troublesome or highly unsettling, then perhaps ignorance is bliss. There is a great deal of research that too-early detection of prostate cancer can cause more harm than good. When is denial good, when is it bad? Could you truly be happy if you knew everything people thought about you? The ability to read minds could be more of a curse than a blessing. And many things are just not worth knowing. We must constantly choose what to invest energy in reading, or watching, and on what to simply pass.
As always, balance is the key.
Ask yourself: “What am I afraid to know? What don’t I want to know? Is there anything in life that I am refusing to face?” Then ask yourself if you truly want to know the answer.
“The cave you fear most to enter holds the treasure you seek.” — Joseph Campbell, 1904–1987
“Don’t ask a question when you don’t want to hear the answer.” — JYB; circa 1982
“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.” — Bill Watterson; 1958–, cartoonist, Calvin and Hobbes
“The thing about denial is that it doesn’t feel like denial when it’s going on.” — Georgina Kleege, “Sight Unseen”
“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” —-George R.R. Martin; 1948–, “A Game of Thrones”