When it comes to the tough issues, ignorance is bliss

New research finds that people who don't know much about difficult issues prefer to keep it that way.

head in the sand 311 (photo credit: iStockPhoto)
head in the sand 311
(photo credit: iStockPhoto)
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 a series of new studies published by the American Psychological Association.
"These studies were designed to help understand the so-called 'ignorance is bliss' approach to social issues," said author Steven Shepherd, a graduate student with the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "The findings can assist educators in addressing significant barriers to getting people involved and engaged in social issues."
Through a series of five studies conducted in 2010 and 2011 with 511 adults in the United States and Canada, the researchers described "a chain reaction from ignorance about a subject to dependence on and trust in the government to deal with the issue."
In one study, participants who felt most affected by the economic recession avoided information challenging the government's ability to manage the economy. However, they did not avoid positive information, the study said.
In another study, participants who were given a complex description about the economy felt more helpless about getting through the economic downturn than those who got a simple description. As a result, they felt that the government was better able manage the economy, and put more trust in it to do so. They also had less of a desire to learn more about the issue than those who received simple descriptions.
"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."
If the issue happens to be a timely and important one, it's all the worse - according to a paper published online in APA's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, urgency just makes people want to learn about it less.
Another two studies found that participants who received complex information about energy sources trusted the government more than those who received simple information.
Participants who felt unknowledgeable about oil supplies not only avoided negative information about the issue, they became even more reluctant to know more when the issue was urgent, as in an imminent oil shortage in the United States.
The authors of the studies recommended further research to determine how people would react when faced with other important issues such as food safety, national security, health, social inequality, poverty and moral and ethical conflict, as well as under what conditions people tend to respond with increased rather than decreased engagement.
"Beyond just downplaying the catastrophic, doomsday aspects to their messages, educators may want to consider explaining issues in ways that make them easily digestible and understandable, with a clear emphasis on local, individual-level causes," the authors said.