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.
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 the necessary actions that we should do but do not.
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 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.
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 macro-evolutionary scale so they cannot be confronted, only circumvented. This protects them on an emotional level by defending their world view.
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.
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.
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.
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.