All men by nature desire to know

ignorant-wife4“ALL men by nature desire to know.” Aristotle, “Metaphysics”

A colleague of mine thinks that we are steadily marching toward total personalization, with technological progress in areas such as big data and machine learning allowing us to fully understand our preferences and anticipate our needs. If that’s the case, algorithms will eventually break a barrier when they realise that people sometimes do not want to know more. Will they respect this awkward preference for ignorance?

Gerd Gigerenzer defines deliberate ignorance as the willful decision not to know the answer to a question of personal interest, even if the answer is free. He thinks that the phenomenon of deliberate ignorance has been largely marginalised as an oddity, but it deserves more scientific attention and greater curiosity. I agree.

The notion of deliberate ignorance may raise eyebrows. Wanting to know appears to be the natural condition of humankind—all men by nature desire to know. A basic tenet of decision theory is that more information is always better, unless the cost of search exceed its potential benefit (rational ignorance). Yet people often choose to be ignorant, exhibiting a form of negative curiosity.

For example, how many people would want to know in advance when and why they will die? How many of you would like to know that you will get divorced the very same day of your wedding ceremony? Foreknowledge simply does not suit every person’s emotional fabric.

Advances in genomic analyses and biomarker research will put more and more people into situations where they have to decide whether they want to know future health issues. Clinics already offer prenatal and newborn screening tests for dozens of genetic or metabolic abnormalities, and people can have their entire genome analyzed. Researchers report having identified biomarkers that help in predicting when a person will die and from what cause others claim to have developed tests that predict with high accuracy whether and when a couple will divorce. But would you want to know during the wedding ceremony whether your marriage is going to end in divorce?

Why would people not always want to know the answer to a question of personal interest, especially if the answer were for free? In a paper(1) written by Gred Gigerenzer  in collaboration with Rocio Garcia-Retamero, they identify four main reasons:

  1. to avoid the negative emotions that may arise from foreknowledge of negative events;
  2. to maintain the positive emotions of surprise and suspense;
  3. to gain a strategic advantage; and
  4. to implement fairness and impartiality

In the paper, they delve into the 1st and 2nd “emotional” reasons behind deliberate ignorance. They show for 10 events of personal relevance that the phenomenon is widespread, and they propose a regret theory to explain this flip-side of human curiosity:

Two nationally representative studies involving more than 2,000 adults in Germany and Spain found that 86 to 90 percent of people would not want to know about upcoming negative events, and 40 to 77 percent preferred to remain ignorant of upcoming positive events. Only 1 percent of participants consistently wanted to know what the future held. (Max Planck Institute, press release)

Emotions are not the only reason behind deliberate ignorance. The 3rd and 4th motives are well-known in the academic debate on law and economics. Fourth is behind our deep conviction that justice must be blind, and other beautiful metaphors like John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” or the three wise monkeys.

The third motive is even more interesting: how to profit strategically from remaining ignorant. Strategic ignorance has been studied in game theory, but if you think this is abstruse theory, you may want to have a look to the acclaimed recent success of the “ignorant wife” (in Spanish) to understand the strategic motives for remaining ignorant if you are trying to eschew responsibility and avoid liability.

Deliberate ignorance differs from agnotology, the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, and particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data—e.g. the tobacco industry’s advertising campaign to manufacture doubt about health risks, or the oil industry fabricating evidence against climate change.

One last remark to conclude. In the paper, authors stress that people who prefer not to know the future are more risk averse and more frequently buy life and legal insurance than those who want to know the future. If people who prefer not to know are their best customers, insurance companies should think carefully how the want to play the game of ignorance in the age of big data!

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(1) Gigerenzer, Gerd, and Rocio Garcia-Retamero. 2017. ‘Cassandra’s Regret: The Psychology of Not Wanting to Know.’ Psychological Review 124 (2): 179. doi:10.1037/rev0000055.

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