February 12, 2018

Call it strategic ignorance or information aversion or fake news – it’s our tendency to push aside facts that counter our feelings or desires. Recently, National Public Radio’s (NPR) social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam and NPR Morning Edition host David Greene collaborated on a report that helps explain how humans use strategic ignorance to dismiss facts they don’t like. In a sense, we seem to have an unhealthy social habit of avoiding candor and truth when we don’t like what it means.

Past studies have shown that information aversion crops up when information is perceived as scary or painful, like avoiding the doctor because we don’t really want to know the truth about what’s possibly wrong with our health.

Today, strategic ignorance shows up when we deliberately choose not to seek out additional information to gain greater understanding or perspective (for example, supporting a candidate but refusing to research and compare his or her position or record on specific issues.)

You know that if you actually got all the information about this course of action, your head might dissuade your heart from doing it. And so what your heart says is, tell the head not to take in any more information. Hold the information at bay because it allows me to do whatever it is that I want to do. ~ Vedantam for NPR (Click here to read the full transcript.)

We’re also well-aware of how social media fuels our strategic ignorance, simply by how it’s programmed to push information to our screens that we’re already in favor of.

Fake news takes our aversion to the truth even further. Sometimes people reference “fake news” when they believe the reporting to be inaccurate or incomplete. Strategically, many also claim “fake news” when they want to simply discredit that source of information, whether or not it is factual and truthful. However, fake news has become an even scarier scapegoat – a way to avoid putting additional time, effort or energy into learning more and perhaps changing our opinions, our consumer choices, or our votes. Some simply shrug off anything they don’t like to read or hear as fake news.

How does developing our capacity for candor help offset our strategic ignorance? Are we looking for truth and fact, even when it counters what we want to believe? Are we able to find respect for sources of information that present ideas counter to our own? Ultimately, are we willing to acknowledge we may be avoiding the truth for the sake of convenience, expediency, or comfort?