Willful ignorance is built on the deliberate avoidance of evidence that doesn’t match one’s existing beliefs. This can be a defense mechanism as it allows us to create a world we feel safe in, akin to confirmation bias.

However, it is also often apparent in behavior that is socially harmful. In this post, we will explore what willful ignorance is and explore this in examples of how it works in everyday life.

What Is Willful Ignorance?

As already outlined, it necessarily involves the deliberate omission of information in a decision-making process. If we are unaware of information, then we would simply be ignorant of something.

It can appear in all sorts of ways in our everyday lives, from ignoring issues that make us feel bad to rejecting irrefutable evidence that doesn’t match our world view. Willful ignorance is also sometimes termed willful blindness, as in Margaret Heffernan’s interesting exploration of the topic. She notes that:

“what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs”

Being willfully ignorant can sometimes protect the brain and work as a defense mechanism. It helps people overcome situations they would otherwise find too much. However, in extreme cases, it can actually lead us to take certain courses of action that can be harmful to ourselves or others. It can also prevent us from taking necessary actions that we should do but do not.

5 Examples of How Willful Ignorance Works in Everyday Life

Being deliberately ignorant about certain matters can help to protect us from scenarios we cannot face. However, being too willfully ignorant can also lead us to cause social harm. It can prevent us from making changes in our lives and be potentially dangerous for our entire existence.

Here, we outline 5 different ways willful ignorance plays out in our daily lives from the mundane through to the serious.

  • Sport

Sport offers a useful way to explore common benign ways people enact willful ignorance in their lives. For example, be it basketball or soccer, if you are the player on a team, more often than not every decision that goes against you appears to be wrong.

Even though sports stars know their actions are on video, they can still appeal against decisions seemingly convinced that what they just did, didn’t happen. Equally, fans watching the game may employ willful blindness to the bad actions of players on the team they support.

  • Creationism & Intelligent Design

Creationists necessarily have to create new narratives to explain away evidence for evolution. Rather than looking at evidence as building blocks, creationist science seeks to manipulate the building blocks until they match the existing ideology.

Indeed, both creationists and intelligent design ‘scientists’ have to ignore hundreds of studies. These studies verify certain facts of evolution confirmed at both a micro and macroevolutionary scale so they cannot be confronted, only circumvented. This protects them on an emotional level by defending their world view.

  • Education

Self-deception through willful ignorance can have beneficial and detrimental effects when it comes to education. For example, if we receive a low score in a test and blame it on the course content not matching the exam, we may feel better about ourselves. However, to do this, we may need to ignore the fact other people we know scored highly on the test.

If we feel okay with a low score, we may not take the time to reflect on what we could have done differently to achieve a better result. As such, it is important to recognize if we are willfully ignoring things that may help us take positive actions in our lives.

  • Health

A common area where most people will have a personal understanding of willful ignorance is being healthy. In this case, being willfully ignorant can have negative consequences for the individual and society at large.

We all know smoking is bad, alcohol is bad, ice cream is bad. However, this fact alone is insufficient to prevent many of us from consuming these things. This is akin to cognitive dissonance. But there are ways we can recognize and overcome this way of thinking and being.

Health also provides an example of where willful ignorance can harm others as well as ourselves. For example, according to the WHO ‘vaccine hesitancy is one of the top 10 global health threats’.

Movements like the anti-vaxxers have grown in popularity, especially in Europe. This has seen a rise in people unsure about the safety of vaccines. In fact, 21 percent of the global population is now feeling this way.

  • Climate change

Climate change perhaps best represents how being willfully ignorant can be both useful as a defense mechanism and socially harmful to ourselves and others. More and more people are experiencing climate change distress. Thus, a certain amount of willful blindness is necessary for many people in order to protect their mental well-being.

However, if everyone practices willful blindness about the issue of climate change, then climate catastrophe for most on the planet will lie ahead.

Final Words

From this exploration of common examples of willful ignorance in everyday life, it is clear that it is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It can be an effective defense mechanism protecting us from events that challenge our comfortable world view. But it can also have negative consequences if we leave it unchecked.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Christopher Hill

    Great topic to bring to everyone’s attention, something we all do from time to time, including the harm that often follows, but you might want to edit-out the creationist/evolution section since there is as much evidence for/against each theory…the truth is, science can’t prove either one (see Gap theory) because there are limits to what science can do regarding past events.

  2. Douglas McAlpin

    It oftentimes hurts to know things. Self- isolation has been around a long time. By removing ourselves from social communalism we become UNEXPOSED to life nuances which we deem unfit for productive life in our bubble of complacency and creates a selfish existence of a semblence of happiness, however false it is in reality.

  3. Lily

    I disagree with climate change. And I can assure you it’s not because of willful ignorance or cognitive dissonance.
    Firstly, the earth moves on its own invisible axis. And this may be not be the best example considering that a floor of a home manmade may still not be completely even or parallel. But is the best example I can use use. A marble when you roll it on the ground as it’s turning you can see the eye of the marble changing positions. That’s what happens with the Earth in its rotations and through hundreds of thousands of years. We have to expect that our climate is going to change. Secondly, regardless of what catastrophe hits our Earth nature always comes back.
    So think about those 2 things.

  4. Unindoctrinated

    I love the irony of the comments including clear examples of wilful ignorance.

  5. David H. Christ

    Using the vax and climate change as if there is no evidence supporting otherwise is a perfect example of both willful ignorance and hypocrisy. I’m sure it is just a coincidence that these two subjects were used as examples

  6. Michael

    It is willful ignorance that makes people believe in the nonsense of catastrophic man-made climate change. The evidence is overwhelming that mankind is not, and cannot, cause any significant warming, yet people still believe the lie.

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