During the Cold War in eastern Germany, the Stasi secret police monitored citizens in the German Democratic Republic with the help of tens of thousands of “informal collaborators.”
These were everyday people who informed on their neighbors, friends, and family members. By 1989, there were 189,000 of them, about one for every 90 people in the GDR. One informant, while watering her friend’s plants, found a western German pudding brand by snooping through the cupboard and told the Stasi, as reported by Der Spiegel. This caused her friend to be fired from his army job, “and an East German household was plunged into destitution.”
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Stasi’s files were opened to the public, and anyone could apply to see if their nearest and dearest had been passing along information. Many decided not to—they just didn’t want to know.
Those who left their files untouched practiced “deliberate ignorance,” according to Ralph Hertwig, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development who studied the decisions people made about their Stasi files, and is the co-editor of the 2021 book Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know.
Knowledge seeking is often regarded as a good thing—we should want to know things, and when given the chance, we seek out information. But many researchers, like Hertwig, are dedicated to the study of what we consistently don’t want to know.
The reasons people decided to remain ignorant to their Stasi files were diverse, Hertwig said. Some were concerned that they would find a loved one had spied on them. Other worries were larger: What if it damaged your ability to ever trust anyone again? Or caused you to lose your faith in your ability to judge another’s character?
Deliberate ignorance is not rare. It’s an often reached for mental tool that pervades much of our lives, even outside of extreme wartime situations. It even has many benefits: It effectively helps regulate emotions by warding off negative ones and prolonging positive ones. It’s a way to maintain our beliefs about ourselves and others, it can be a mechanism for fairness or to remove bias, or a way to avoid overwhelm when bombarded with information.
But in other cases, our propensity for deliberate ignorance has consequences, and more so during a pandemic and an era of rampant misinformation. Someone choosing not to know about their COVID infection status or the severity of climate change, for instance, can lead to serious short and long term side effects for those around them. Just as we need to understand the motives behind knowledge seeking and curiosity—how it functions and what it’s good for—we also need to better understand what’s behind the desire to say: “I don’t want to know.”
The idea that humans are born with an insatiable thirst for knowledge is deeply entrenched. “You see it popping up through the history of Western thought, starting with Aristotle,” Hertwig said. (The first sentence in Aristotle’s Metaphysics is, “All men naturally desire knowledge.”)
The common view is that ignorance is a vice and knowledge is a virtue. “In the famous allegory of Plato’s cave, we already find this opposition between ignorance, which is represented by a dark world inside the cave, and knowledge—the space enlightened by the light of truth,” said Ekaterina Kubyshkina, an epistemologist and logician at the University of Campinas in Brazil.
Watch more from VICE:
When knowledge is depicted in this way, it’s easy to see how ignorance would be perceived as passive, or lazy. “That’s the connotation of ignorance,” Hertwig said. “It's like people are inert. They are intellectual couch potatoes.”
But deliberate ignorance challenges that: It’s an active choice, just as active as deciding or desiring to learn something. Even those famous for their pursuit of knowledge have exhibited deliberate ignorance. When James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of DNA structure along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, sequenced his own genome, he asked not to have a specific gene revealed, which was associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
What don’t we want to know? There are some underlying commonalities. If information spoils the future, people often don’t want to know it. An intuitive example of this, of course, is a spoiler. There has been at least one case of a person getting attacked for spoiling the ending of Avengers: Endgame.
Jennifer Howell, a psychologist at the University of California, Merced, has tested this in the lab, and found that while people are watching a video, about 80% of them don’t want to be told how it ends while they’re in the middle of it. Another kind of spoiler: a significant group of people don’t want to know the sex of their unborn child.
Howell has also found there are many things people don’t want to know about their romantic partners: About 75% of study subjects didn't want to know if their partner has had thoughts about cheating on them, even if they didn't go through with it. Another 40% would rather not know if their partner was racist, sexist, homophobic (and they currently didn’t know it).
Many college-aged students did not want to know if others found them attractive or not, when told that a photograph of themselves had been uploaded to a “hot or not” style website. When it comes to our parents, “Masturbation is the very biggest thing people wouldn't want to know about their parents,” Howell said. “Basically, we don't want to shatter the image of our parents or have to think about them in some different way.” Many people also didn't want to know if their parents had a mental illness.
In a study from 2017, psychologists found that between 85% and 90% of people from Spain and Germany did not want to know information like the time of their deaths or if they were going to be divorced in the future.
A lower percentage, around 40% to 70%, didn’t want to know about what they were going to be gifted for Christmas, or be told the final score of a soccer game they had missed. When asked if they would want to know if a blue sapphire they bought in Sri Lanka for 2,000 euros was a counterfeit, 48.6% of participants said no and 51.4% said yes.
Not wanting to know was much more common than wanting to know; only 1% of participants consistently wanted to know everything.
Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and co-author of the 2017 paper, suggested the “regret theory” to explain all these disparate instances of deliberate ignorance. Ignorance avoids negative feelings that come from knowledge; information you might regret knowing later on.
Hertwig and his colleague, Christoph Engel, mapped out six different motivations for deliberate ignorance. “Among those six, a very important one is that deliberate ignorance is a powerful way to regulate in particular anticipated negative emotions,” Hertwig agreed. Another driving factor, Howell said, is that some information can threaten your world view, or view of yourself. Deliberate ignorance can help persevere such “cherished beliefs.”
When it comes to our parents’ masturbation habits, perhaps it’s okay to stay in the dark. But Howell also studies how this translates to information avoidance around health. Almost everyone has a friend or family member who avoids the doctor or regular screenings. Some people don’t visit their doctors because of cost or time scarcity. Deliberate ignorance is choosing not to go as an emotional regulation strategy: to avoid having to feel the negative emotions that might arise—even if it could prevent more serious consequences in the future.
In a 2016 study, 39% of participants said that they would rather not know their chance of getting cancer. A similar study showed that 21% of college-aged women and 24% of women 35 and up would choose not to know their breast cancer risk. Only around 10 to 15% of people who are at high risk for Huntington’s Disease choose to get genetic testing to see if they will develop the condition.
“Some people don't want to know whether they have a genetic disorder that might kill them when they're young,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol. “They feel that the fear of them living with that knowledge is far worse than not knowing.”
The rise of genetic testing has opened up a whole new domain of topics that people may not want to know about. 23 and Me could reveal previously unknown family members, backgrounds, lineages, and more that people regret knowing about later on. Rather than insisting we know it all, researchers and bioethicists have proposed the "right not to know" paradigm, arguing it's a person's prerogative to remain unaware of information about themselves.
Some people are more prone to deliberate ignorance. Hertwig has found that the older a person is, the more likely they are to choose ignorance, perhaps because they are more well-versed in that emotional regulation strategy, or because they have the experience of being burned by knowing too much.
People who describe themselves as being open to new experiences, one of the "Big Five" personality dimensions, are less likely to exercise deliberately ignorance. In Gigerenzer’s paper, he found that people with higher levels of deliberate ignorance were also more risk averse, which might make sense given their desire to avoid regret. They also were more likely to buy life and legal insurance, and more frequently attended religious services. (Since this study was conducted in Europe, Gigerenzer said he’s not sure if these predictors would translate to the United States.)
There are cultural influences to what people will remain deliberately ignorant about too, said Karen Huang, an empirical ethicist at Georgetown University. For a baby’s sex at birth, for example, a culture that has an anticipatory positive event, like gender reveal party, may encourage more deliberate ignorance around that piece of information, because there’s more emotional content to regulate. In a culture where the sex of a baby was less important, people might not care.
"It's often a defensible decision to not know," Gigerenzer said. "It's equally defensible if someone wants to know."
Those studying deliberate ignorance aren’t out to prove that all ignorance is bad and working against us—it’s the opposite, actually, said Laura Schmid, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Science and Technology, Austria who studies game theory. In many circumstances, avoiding knowledge is adaptive.
Ignorance can be deliberately introduced to protect people or to eliminate bias or to retain deniability and flexibility, Lewandowsky said. This is the premise of double blind clinical trials, where participants and scientists remain willfully ignorant to key details about a study. Potential jurors are dismissed if they have pre-existing knowledge about a defendant.
The New York Philharmonic and other classical music groups imposed “blind auditions” to help diversify its members. When people auditioned unseen, gender disparities in orchestras decreased.
The philosopher John Rawls has a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance,” where he proposed that if people came up with the governing principles of a society without the knowledge of what their own status in that society would be, they would enact fairer laws.
This has since been shown experimentally: When people are asked to imagine that they don’t know what position they would have—like class, race, or gender—people are more likely to donate to effective charities, save more lives in bioethical dilemmas, and support utilitarian autonomous vehicle policies.
There are probably both virtuous kinds of deliberate ignorance and vicious kinds, said Pierre Le Morvan, a philosopher at The College of New Jersey, who studies epistemology, or the study of knowledge. “There's also the vicious kind of deliberate ignorance where you don't want to know because it's inconvenient or it might call into question your practices,” Le Morvan said.
Anat R. Admati and Martin Hellwig wrote in 2013 about how after the financial crisis in 2008, “willful blindness helps bankers and policymakers ignore the risks in which they engage, deflect criticism, and stall effective reform,” Gigerenzer wrote. A manager in a company may not want to know anything about the accounts because they are worried that there's fraud, and so they want to have plausible deniability, Lewandosky said. Studies have shown that almost 10% of people who get HIV testing do not come back for their results.
In these instances deliberate ignorance is problematic—not the ignorance itself but its function and effects on others. “I don't want to know because I don't want to ruin my life,” Schmid said. “On the other hand, not knowing and continuing to choose not to know can affect other people.”
During a pandemic the tendency to deliberately ignore takes on new poignancy. Recently, when the CDC recently shortened the isolation period from 10 days to 5 days, it didn’t recommend a negative covid test before an isolation is ended. This thrust an individual’s quarantine directly in the realm of deliberate ignorance. If someone decided to not take a test after 5 days, and simply chose not to know whether it was positive or negative, then they could go back out into the world with unknown consequences.
This sentiment has played out before. “At one point in the pandemic, Donald Trump said, ‘Well, the reason that we have so many cases is because we're testing so much,’” Howell said. “In some ways that’s true, right? But would we rather not know?”
When deciding what to be ignorant about, Hertwig suggested looking to philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” for guidance: if your behavior harms other people, then it is at risk of being unethical. Making our ignorant choices wisely, and ensuring they don't negatively impact others, is the key to wielding deliberate ignorance safely.
It’s important to emphasize that deliberate ignorance is often a choice: The Stasi files showed how choosing to remain ignorant isn’t always passive, but often active. Hertwig offered another example: What if you stumbled across a close friend’s diary and they weren’t there. Would you be tempted to read it? Or would you decide to resist that temptation, and remain ignorant of the diary’s contents, to protect your friend’s privacy and avoid reading hurtful information that was never meant to be public?
“Ignorance can sometimes be the opposite of laziness,” Hertwig said. “It requires real self-control.”
This can be useful in the face of misinformation, too. When confronting information deluge, like on the internet, deliberate ignorance can also be an active and useful strategy to maintain one's agency. “Deliberate ignorance can be a powerful information management tool in such a digital world that is designed to hijack our attention,” Hertwig said.
Most are familiar with the concept of critical thinking or reading, but Hertwig has suggested another alternative: critical ignorance, where we actively choose to not engage with certain content. Hertwig was inspired by the work of Eric Wineburg, an educational scientist at Stanford, who has studied lateral reading. This is a process that professional fact checkers use where if they engage with suspicious looking content online, instead of reading the website itself to check its reliability, they leave the site and read other sources about its origin to look into credibility.
“I feel like that’s what the doomscrolling idea was,” Howell said. “At some point, more information is not helping you in any way. It's not improving your decisions. It could even be paralyzing your decisions.”
While there is individual variability, Howell said that we can override our tendencies to know or not want to know. Doing something as simple as making a pro/con list can be helpful. “That can move you out of your gut reaction to more controlled deliberate reactions,” she said.
It can also work for those on the other end of the spectrum: On the deliberate ignorance spectrum, I tend to veer towards wanting to know everything at all costs—even knowing things that hurt me, and which I might have been better off remaining blissfully ignorant about. For those of us who gather information to our emotional detriment, can the knowledge that it’s an effective emotional regulation strategy to remain ignorant help us to live more peaceful lives?
Or maybe deliberate ignorance can simply provide the insight that none of us know everything, and we make choices about what to ignore everyday. In ancient Greece, The Oracle of Delphi is said to have decreed that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, not because he was the smartest but because he was aware of just how much he was aware he was ignorant about.
“We, as human beings, have a limited amount of time,” Le Morvan said. “We have a limited amount of resources and it's inevitable that we have to pick and choose. Sometimes we're going to have to choose to be ignorant about certain matters in order to know more about others. That's just a fact of life. Sometimes in order to pursue what really matters, we have to choose to be ignorant of certain other things.”
It’s something that Hertwig has been trying to practice himself. In one recent instance, he read an article about Marjorie Taylor Greene’s belief in the "frazzledrip” conspiracy theory.
“The article said: ‘Don't google this, if you have a sensitive stomach,’” Hertwig said in an interview at the Max Planck Institute. “The warning was followed by a hyperlink, making me feel very tempted to click on it. At the same time, I felt really manipulated and I told myself: Time to practice deliberate ignorance.”
Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.