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The Echoes of Experience

Life propels us forward, but our learning journey is rooted in the past.

  • Writer's picturePatricio Ramal

Hiding from Awareness: Is Ignorance Bliss?

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To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain;
The unfeeling for his own.

Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

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These are the last ten stanzas of “Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College,” a poem by Thomas Gray, one of the most important English poets of the 18th century. This poem is said to be the origin of the famous phrase ignorance is bliss, which has been widely used to portray the feeling of tranquility or peace of mind that comes from not knowing.



Peekaboo with ourselves.


In a broader context, it relates to ignoring life's troubles, hardship, and meaninglessness. In this context, it’s almost used as a recipe for happiness. Don’t ask too many questions about the meaning of life because you won’t like what you will hear. There is a tint: "The more aware you are, the less happy you will be.”


In a narrower context, this phrase can be the equivalent of another common phrase: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” Tracing the origin of this quote is a lot harder, but I love a quote from Margaret Atwood’s book The Blind Assassin: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you. A dubious maxim: sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you very much.”


About Ignorance


Ignorance is defined as the lack of knowledge or information. As we discussed in another post, knowledge is generated from the combination of information and insights. And because insights physically change the brain, knowledge changes people.


And that’s a good thing.


We use information and knowledge to make decisions. It’s difficult to imagine that humans would have survived this long being ignorant. We’ve made tremendous progress in understanding the universe, nature, physics, and technology, to name a few. All this information and knowledge has helped us to make decisions so that we can live another day.


However, regardless of how far we’ve come as a species and how much farther we go, the reality is that, individually, we are all ignorant to a great extent. Knowing even a tiny fraction of what surrounds us daily is impossible. We don’t even know what we don’t know, which is more of our permanent state; going back to the phrase, ignorance is bliss.


Well, it turns out human ignorance is not without its quirks.


Let me take you back to 2008 and introduce you to Himanshu, Baba, and Dhananjay, three researchers who partnered in an exciting and revealing consumer behavior study. 


Their goal was to test the importance of information in people's decision-making process. The authors examined participants who decided on chocolates, hand lotions, and animated movies in three separate studies. The conclusion was that people about to make decisions want as many details as possible. But after a decision is made, people want to be happy with it.


In that case, vague information increases optimism about the decision. Participants felt more optimistic about their choices in each case when presented with vague information after making their decisions, but not before.


This study examined what was then coined the "Blissful Ignorance Effect," the way consumers' goals shifted after purchasing. As the paper's authors stated, "The Blissful Ignorance Effect suggests that individuals tend to expect more favorable outcomes with vague information after taking an action than before taking the action."


"Having documented the Blissful Ignorance Effect, we highlighted the underlying process based on the interplay of two goals—the goal of being accurate and the goal of feeling good about one's decision," the authors explain.


Beyond chocolate and hand lotions, is there a broader implication of this finding?


Awareness and Motives


Information and knowledge are dependent on motives. So when our motives change, meaning changes as well. "It does appear that vagueness can make one more optimistic about one's own life choices and subjective well-being by allowing one to see what one wants to see—a case of ignorance truly being bliss!" the authors write. 


But here is where awareness comes in. Awareness is the opposite of ignorance and is defined as the knowledge or perception of a situation or a fact. So we use information and knowledge to make a decision, meaning we are now aware, but after the decision is made, we feel better off without that information or knowledge.


How does that happen? Do we suddenly become unaware or forget the information? Do we do that willingly or unwillingly? 


Research suggests that two fundamental goals make up the entire decision-making process: accuracy goals and directional goals. Accuracy goals refer to wanting the most accurate information, while directional goals refer to justifying a decision to achieve a particular conclusion.


Specifically, before the decision-making phase, since we have not committed to a choice yet, the goal is to achieve a high level of accuracy in information to inform our decision - the accuracy goal. In contrast, after the decision-making phase, we want to feel good about the action taken and believe that the decision will yield positive consequences - the directional goal.


The vague information allows it to be manipulated in favor of the directional goal, which is arriving at the desired conclusion, making it easier to form justifiable reasons that support this goal. In other words, vague information allows you to amplify the positive and downplay the negative aspects of the information presented in the post decision-making phase. Hence, as you switch from accuracy goals to directional goals before and after a decision, vague information helps to build confidence in that decision.


But if we were already aware before we made the decision, there is no logic supporting the idea that we would become ignorant after the decision.


So, is this some adult peekaboo?


Being Right or Feeling Good?


I would hate to think that we do this willingly. It is one of those quirks in human behavior that we need to know about. Why? Because as Margate Atwood said, “What you don’t know can hurt you very much.”


Faced with this situation, I think we can ask ourselves three basic questions:


  • Am I looking to understand if I’ve made the right decision or to justify my decision so that I can feel good about myself?

  • What’s the evidence that I’ve made a wrong decision?

  • How much evidence do I need before I can conclude?


The first signs that something is wrong with a decision might not be enough evidence to be conclusive. But because we want to feel good about our choices, we tend to ignore the information that doesn’t make us feel good. Sometimes, it is evident to everyone but ourselves.


To feel good, we hide from awareness. We hide so that we don’t feel guilty or have to take responsibility for our decisions.


The irony is that we are hiding in plain sight.


Patricio Ramal


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