Why being willfully ignorant is bad in the long run

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Kevin Mangelschots

Some people out there choose to disregard and avoid facts and empirical evidence against better judgment, even though deep inside, they know they’re wrong. That’s what we call willful ignorance.

This strategy might work in the immediate present to reduce stress and anxiety but will lead to problems down the road. That’s because the issues remain unresolved and will thus continue to hinder your progress.

Let me explain why being willfully ignorant is bad in the long run.

Why willful ignorance leads to problems

Image of three men sitting against a wall with a mask. The first one is covering his mouth, the middle one is covering his eyes, and the last one is covering his ears, depicting willful ignorance.

One of the things that irks me the most about humans is if they’re willfully ignorant.

I don’t care all that much if someone is smart or not, knowledgeable, or not, or even when they’re wrong about something but don’t realize it. If they’re incorrect about a subject but don’t recognize it, then that can at least be chalked up to plain ignorance or making a mistake. They just don’t know any better.

These variations in knowledge and understanding are normal because these are naturally occurring differences in humans since even equality of opportunity will not bring equality of outcome. No matter how much some people want it to.

But intentional ignorance is another story. Because those folks realize they’re wrong but are simply unwilling to admit it against better judgment. They’re aware of the fact that they should change something in their lives or behavior for the better, but just refuse to do so.

Actively deluding oneself

The words “expectations vs. reality” written in black letters on a light blue background.

My problem with these actions stems from the fact that they’re actively deluding themselves (and often others) with lies and excuses while typically rationalizing their poor behavior. They’re diluting the truth and the power that facts and honesty hold. Over time, the line between truth and lie gets blurry, and people become unable to see the world for what it realistically is.

Conscious avoidance seems to me like an attempt to cope with a situation. However, I consider it to be a poor long-term coping mechanism because of its unsustainability.

While actively avoiding or repressing certain situations might be beneficial briefly by reducing stress and anxiety, this will ultimately only allow the issues to grow larger over time. Not to mention that those concerns tend to resurface again with an increased intensity and frequency later in life.

Will lead to problems in the future

The quote, “don't let the sadness of your past and the fear of your future ruin the happiness of your present” written on a background.

Sooner or later, intentional ignorance will cause issues in your existence. Be it through not being able to recognize what’s real anymore because you’ve been lying and making excuses for so long, or due to getting sick because you know you’ve been purposefully deluding yourself.

Instead, you’re aware of the fact that you should’ve been acting with courage to modify the things you know you should alter to improve your life.

Willful ignorance can lead to hate and prejudice

A large portion of hate and prejudice can be attributed to willful ignorance. Because they know what they’re doing is wrong and illogical but decide to do so anyway.

Plain ignorance can be chalked up to simply not knowing any better, but contrived ignorance is much worse. Since one deliberately chooses to ignore the truth.

It dilutes the truth

Furthermore, it dilutes and detracts from the truth.

It is not appropriate to live your life based on a lie and like you’re stuck in a fairy tale. The reality is that life isn’t picture-perfect. It is fun, but also painful and harsh. There are good times, but there are most certainly also poor periods. People die, we get sick, accidents happen, and war and violence are always a possibility.

So while there are certainly beautiful moments, it’s unreasonable to say that all experiences are equally optimistic.

Why do people turn to willful ignorance?

The quote, “ignorance is not just what you don't know, but it's also what you won't know”.

Out of laziness

Some people employ tactical stupidity because they’re lazy. They’re not willing to put in the work to become knowledgeable. To put in the time and effort to relentlessly chase after the truth, and to search for empirical evidence and facts.

That’s why holding on to your beliefs without ever having to change them, or even think about altering them is such an attractive option to some of us.

Laziness can have some merit in conserving energy, especially in ancient times when food sources were scarce. Thus, so was our ability to acquire energy. Being lazy about becoming informed is not smart, and not a good survival mechanism either. It will not improve your life, nor will it be beneficial to your future self.

Afraid of being wrong

People can turn towards willful blindness because of an inability to admit one’s faults and weaknesses.

It takes courage to admit to ourselves and others that we are not ideal. That we are flawed as human beings.

We like to think of ourselves as the perfect representatives of humanity. Possessing all the right values, ethics, and actions to boot. This is our ego that’s talking. Our pride desperately tries to protect itself and will violently fight against everything that tries to change or attack it as a result.

Afraid of the unknown

The quote, “never be afraid to try something new, because life gets boring when you stay within the limits of what you already know” written in white letters on a grayish background.

Another potential reason could be that they’re afraid. Scared of the changes that living truthfully with themselves and those around them would provide. Frightened of all the pain that it could cause, even if it would eventually work out better in the end.

The only real positives are to reduce stress for a short period and to prevent one from getting overwhelmed in the immediate present.

Willful ignorance as a coping mechanism

Perhaps people tend to turn to willful ignorance because of their inability to tolerate the truth.

The truth often hurts before it can eventually set you free. Too much truth at a given time can make us stressed out, anxious, and even fearful of the future. In these situations, it can be considered normal to turn to healthy coping mechanisms.

Still, I don’t consider intentional ignorance to be a healthy coping mechanism since it’s not sustainable over time.

Sometimes, ignorance can be bliss, but the question is if it is worth the cost.

Hidden benefits of willful ignorance

Illustration of tree monkeys hiding their eyes, ears, and covering its mouth, depicting that ignorance is bliss.

  • Coping mechanism

    It can be considered a form of coping mechanism when we know we can’t or will not be able to handle the full truth.

    That’s why we might decide to not pursue the truth, or any additional information that causes even more conflicting thoughts.

    Thus, knowing half-truths might be considered beneficial by some. Especially in the immediate present.

  • Protecting our self-image

    We can choose to forego pursuing data that can put our belief system at odds with our actions.

    Therefore, it can be seen as a defense mechanism to protect our self-image and to prevent any further cognitive dissonance from happening.

  • Not pursuing information lowers the effort and, potentially, the cost

    The quote, “in the age of information, ignorance is a choice” written on a black background.

    Humans have this tendency to weigh cost and effort. Chances are large that we won’t pursue that thing when the cost and/or effort outweigh the benefits in our eyes. The same is true regarding information.

    An argument can be made that knowing too much, such as recognizing that one has an incurable form of cancer, is not always beneficial.

    For some, this might not be true. They might be glad to realize such looming threats to live their last moments more intensely and to take the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.

    But for others, recognizing this imminent, unpreventable doom might make their last moments more miserable than had they not known that dreadful information.

    As we can see, being too conscious of everything going on around us has a cost too. That’s why being blissfully ignorant can be seen as a blessing as well.

  • Can prevent conflicts

    Intentional ignorance can even prevent conflicts in some cases.

    When we know that acknowledging the full depth of information will put us at odds with ourselves, and even others, it might be positive to not know all the available info.

    Thus, it can protect group cohesion and prevent fights from breaking out between members of the same unit.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is willful ignorance?

Image of the negative power of willful ignorance.

Willful ignorance can be defined as deliberate avoidance, disregarding, or disagreeing with facts, empirical evidence, and justified, well-thought-out arguments because they dispute or differ from our personal beliefs.

It’s the practice of avoiding becoming well-informed about something to make advantageous decisions. It can be considered a form of self-deception, since they realize to some degree that they’re wrong about their beliefs or actions.

This detrimental behavior is most typically found in ideological circles. Think of instances like political or religious ideologies. There are other causes as well of course, such as laziness, people not wanting to change their opinions and beliefs, fear of the unknown, and being wrong.

Synonyms of willful ignorance

Willful ignorance has many potential synonyms, such as:

  • Intentional ignorance
  • Willful blindness
  • Conscious avoidance
  • Ignorance of law
  • Tactical stupidity
  • Contrived ignorance
  • Nelsonian knowledge

While the wording is a bit different, the meaning remains the same.

Examples of willful ignorance in life

Image of the word “example” being written with a blue marker by someone's hand.

Education

An example of willful ignorance in education can be when we receive bad grades at school.

Instead of concluding, or even entertaining the idea, that we had insufficient knowledge of the study material, we frequently automatically assume that the teacher must’ve made a mistake. Or we presume that the teacher in question has something against us and purposefully gave us bad grades as a way to punish us.

We might choose to forego the fact that other fellow students received good grades for the sake of protecting our ego and because it fits our agenda and current belief system.

Sport

A sport example is when the coach decides to bench us during the match.

Instead of harboring the idea that we might’ve been playing poorly, or that a teammate might offer a tactical advantage on the field, we automatically adopt the mindset that the coach is wrong, incompetent, or simply ill-willed.

Health

Fit dark skinned woman cutting healthy vegetables and fruits.

Finally, the last example is about our well-being. Imagine that we have someone that’s obese.

Instead of accepting the simple fact that being overweight is unhealthy and can lead to a whole host of chronic diseases, they might argue that they don’t drink, or smoke and that this means they’re healthier than non-obese folks who don’t exercise.

They purposefully ignore the available info that being overweight is extremely unhealthy, and that it can be detrimental to our overall well-being since it greatly taxes our organs such as our heart and lungs.

What is the difference between ignorance and willful ignorance?

Image of three men sitting against a wall with a mask. The first one is covering his mouth, the middle one is covering his eyes, and the last one is covering his ears, depicting willful ignorance.

Ignorance means that someone has very little to no knowledge about a certain topic.

It differs from willful ignorance since an ignorant person doesn’t realize they lack expertise and aren’t intentionally wrong or disregarding that information. A willfully ignorant person on the other hand chooses to put their head in the sand on purpose, fully realizing what they’re doing.

Thus, we can describe someone who’s intentionally ignorant as a person who is conscious of the fact they’re not as knowledgeable as they could and should be. Instead, they decide to not learn more about a subject out of laziness, fear, easiness, peace of mind, or possibly to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Is ignorance the opposite of intelligence?

A person holding a question mark in front of their face.

Intelligence is knowing what to do, and/or how to do it, while ignorance conveys not knowing what to do, and/or not knowing how to get it done.

Nevertheless, an ignorant person may think they know what to do and how to do it, the same as an intelligent person.

Yet, it’s also potentially true that an ignorant person thinks they don’t know how to do something, or how to do it, while the intelligent person thinks precisely the same.

However, an ignorant individual thinks they have all the answers due to a lack of knowledge most of the time. Oftentimes, an intelligent individual acknowledges how much they know, but also where their limitations lie regarding their expertise.

Is ignorance a coping mechanism?

Illustration describing how to cope in order to reduce stress and increase health.

Ignorance isn’t a coping mechanism since it involves an authentic lack of expertise about a particular topic.


Nevertheless, being willfully ignorant can most certainly be a coping mechanism since it’s intentional because they’re fully aware of what they’re doing, and because it can serve a purpose. Nevertheless, it isn’t a beneficial or sustainable way of dealing with stress in the long run.

Nonetheless, it can aid in reducing tension in the immediate present and briefly thereafter by reducing mental strain due to decreasing cognitive dissonance and providing peace of mind all the while being an easy solution.

Yet, over time, it will cause many more issues than it solves since we aren’t as capable and informed as we know we could and should be regarding the topic at hand.

Call to action

Question your own beliefs. Never assume yourself to be right all the time, no matter how smart you might be.

You shouldn’t see being wrong as something bad, but rather as an opportunity to evolve into an improved version of yourself with a better understanding of the world. That’s why you should go from blissful ignorance to becoming self-aware in life.

Chase the truth by searching for facts and empirical evidence, rather than solely depending on your feelings to decide.

Intentional ignorance will not improve your life, especially not your future self.

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