Why We Want To Tune Out Complexity–And How We Can Address This

New research published by the American Psychological Association finds that the less we know about a complex social issue, the more we avoid becoming well-informed. We consider a few implications.

A recent piece at Sci Guru got us thinking about the old adage — and now verified cognitive bias — that states that ignorance is bliss. Research published by the American Psychological Association found that the less people know about complex issues like the economy or climate change, the less we’re inclined to educate ourselves about it. Additionally, the more urgent the issue, the more people want to remain unaware.

One of the more interesting effects identified by the study was our tendency to trust an external organization or party to handle the issue — in this case, the government — as its relative level of complexity increases. In other words, the more complex the issue, the likelier we are to ‘outsource’ it and trust the government to handle it. According to Sci Guru:

In one study, participants who felt most affected by the economic recession avoided information challenging the government’s ability to manage the economy. However, they did not avoid positive information, the study said. This study comprised 197 Americans with a mean age of 35 (111 women and 89 men), who had received complex information about the economy and had answered a question about how the economy is affecting them directly.

To test the links among dependence, trust and avoidance, researchers provided either a complex or simple description of the economy to a group of 58 Canadians, mean age 42, composed of 20 men and 38 women. The participants who received the complex description indicated higher levels of perceived helplessness in getting through the economic downturn, more dependence on and trust in the government to manage the economy, and less desire to learn more about the issue.

To combat these human tendencies and achieve higher levels of engagement, the study suggests that educators hedge their bets by downplaying the enormity and complexity of an issue, and instead focus on individual, hyper-local aspects of the issue.  The studies’ organizers also recognize that additional exploration is necessary to understand how different conditions and types of issues may impact the ‘intentional ignorance’ effect.

We consider some other hypotheses and implications that the study inspired us to mull over:

  • Approaching and presenting a complex issue as a connected system may allow us to frame it in a more structured, organized fashion–perhaps by addressing or presenting one dimension or factor at a time.
  • Are the dynamics of self-selected ignorance different for a younger demographic (the study’s mean age was 35 in the US and 42 in Canada) that has grown up in a culture where social consciousness is expected and rewarded?
  • Digital media and tools afford an opportunity to better educate on complex issues. From game mechanics with built-in incentives to ‘level up’ in understanding information, to information visualization and synthesis, to interactive presentations – we believe digital tools and mechanisms can help break down a complex issue as a connected system with interdependent dimensions that an audience can understand over time, piece by piece. Case in point: see the Millennium Promise for an organization that is tacking a complex issue in a more comprehensive way.
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