Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power & the fear of hypocrisy

First post of the new year, and I'm not starting out lightly...

Earlier this week, my friend Brian McGowan posted this tweet:

I spend a lot of time thinking about behavioral change, organizational change and performance improvement as an immersive learning designer, and lately even more than usual as I finish my book. We even designed a game on personal resilience in The Change Game. Suffice it to say, expertise in change and resistance is required for what I do every day.

I just never considered fear of hypocrisy as a motivation for intentional ignorance.

Some people might call it self deception, or denial...but those things are different. Those labels refer to people who actually know something but convince themselves that what they know isn't true. There are a number of reasons why someone would deny something they know to be true and not being a psychologist, I'm not going to examine those motivations. While self deception might be interesting to explore as an obstacle to change, I'm more interested as to why someone would intentionally choose not to collect the information they should have to make an informed decision.

Brian's tweet, and the subsequent exchange with Julie Dirksen, got me thinking about what that decision-making process might look like. As a rough pass, I've flowcharted it here:

I'll walk you through my logic...

If you have a question, you have a choice: seek the answer to the question or don't. I won't get into the validity of different data sources...let's just assume that you have a limited set of resources to pull data from and getting informed means that you look at all of them, and staying ignorant means that you don't look at all of them (ignorance then can refer to collecting data from only one, or a known biased, source).

After you decide to research the answer to your question, or not, you have a choice: change what I'm doing, or stay the course. Either way, there's a chance that you will succeed and a chance that you will fail. For the sake of this discussion, I'm also not going to explore the likelihood of success or failure based on your level of being informed versus ignorant...there is probably data out there that shows a higher likelihood that you will be successful if you're informed, but I'm focusing more on motivation and perception here, not the actual validity of the decision.

Whether you decide to change or not change, if you made an informed decision and are successful, your perception will justify your motivation to make an informed decision: knowledge is power. If you decide to change while remaining ignorant and are successful, you'll likely think of yourself as lucky, or perhaps even credit your own intuition or intelligence on making the "right" decision, which would reinforce risk-taking behavior. If you decide not to change and are successful, then you'll also likely credit your own intuition and intelligence, but instead of reinforcing risk-taking, you're reinforcing resistance to change.

So, what if you fail? Here's where I think things get interesting. If you change and fail, and if you were informed, you might blame bad data on the decision to change. You might also blame things like lack of experience, lack of knowledge on how to operate in the new environment, or not anticipating the full impact of the other words, you'll likely think that you weren't informed enough. The same rationale holds true for the decision to not change that results in failure, but with a twist...if I was informed and decided not to change, was it because the data told me not to change or was it because I ignored the data that informed me I should change? And if I knew that I should change, and I didn't, does that make me a hypocrite?

But, if you fail, and you were ignorant? You can default to "I didn't know!" Informed failure requires the person to take responsibility for the outcome; ignorant failure allows the person to divert responsibility.

Organizationally, and in regards to learning innovation specifically, I hear a lot of objections to exploring new design strategies that sound like "our people aren't technology savvy" or "we don't have the money for those types of initiatives" or "our company isn't ready for that." But are you sure? I'm guessing your people are much more technology savvy than you think, that "these types of initiatives" are a lot less expensive than you imagine, and that while your company may not be ready for change, companies that don't change don't succeed.

On a personal note, it takes a certain type of emotional fortitude to deal with the data that research may turn up, and some people, and some organizations, truly don't want to have to face the decision to change. As part of the Twitter conversation with Brian and Julie, Julie shared a link to an article on self-deception, and research was shared out that showed "ignorance is bliss," that people who remain ignorant are happier. I don't disagree with that; shirking the responsibility of knowledge puts you in a childlike position of letting others make the informed decisions for you. There are lots of times I'd love to "not know" much work there is to be done to fix broken systems, how much injustice exists in the world, how many problems there are to tackle, big and small. I'm sure life would be easier and I'd get more sleep.

But then I read a comment on the Noam Chomsky interview on self-deception and I believe the same  applies to intentional ignorance. Choosing to be uninformed is bigger than just displacing responsibility of action; deciding to be ignorant defines who you are, either as an individual, as an organization, or as a society. The brackets are my addition, with apologies to Richard for applying his thoughts to a different, but related, topic:

It is interesting that people respond with indignation to the idea of liars {the ignorant} being happier. Some commentators said it was obviously not the case.
Ah, for me the question is rather, what is the pay off for living without self deception {ignorance}?
Could it be self-respect, the ability to appreciate beauty even in a flawed world, resiliency and fortitude, and dare I say it, spiritual maturity?
May. 07 2011 04:52 PM

I do believe that knowledge is power and with great power comes great responsibility (attribution to Voltaire and Stan Lee). While it may not make us happier to be informed, I believe it makes us better. Fear of hypocrisy is a poor excuse for remaining ignorant; better to resolve yourself to informed action than remain in the dark. An informed society is a higher functioning society, an informed organization is a higher performing organization, and an informed person is a more responsible decision-maker.

In 2012, may you be better informed and ready for the changes ahead, because there are always changes ahead...


  1. Hey Koreen -- the part of all this that I wonder about is whether a little bit of ignorant optimism makes you not *happier* but rather more successful.

    Whether turning a slightly blind eye to the downside, and having a slightly inflated sense of ability are necessary to fling yourself off the cliff and tackle impractical things.

    Clearly a LOT of overconfidence makes you a doofus (, but maybe a *little* is a necessary ingredient for fake it til you make it?

  2. LOL, totally true, Julie...and I often refer to myself as the "eternal Pollyanna" since I always believe that things work out. But I don't know if that's ignorant or just optimistic? Because I think I want to actually know all of the facts so I can make informed decisions, or at least, if I decide to do something in the face of all evidence to the contrary, at least I'm taking responsibility for it? In general, isn't it better to know?