Science says ignorance really is bliss after all

Photo Kristian Dowling/Getty Images

There are some things in life people are better off not knowing, according to an Australian psychologist.

Michael Smithson, a professor at the ANU Research School of Psychology, says many think of ignorance being something negative, but that’s not always the case.

“One of the positive things that comes from ignorance is freedom,” he says.

“To have personal freedom you need parts of your life and your future that you don’t know about, otherwise you’re not free to make choices. If everything is laid out for you and you know all about it, you’ve got no freedom.”

He’s about to run a free online course exploring the topic of ignorance and explaining why there are some things in life not knowing.

Researchers, artists and entrepreneurs all need ignorance to give them room to create.

“You need unknowns, otherwise there’s nothing to discover and there’s nothing new to create,” he says.

Entertainment also needs a little temporary ignorance to work properly

“Imagine knowing beforehand the plots and endings to all the books you’ll ever read or the movies you’ll ever see,” Smithson says. “The same goes for pleasant surprises, such as birthday or Christmas presents.”

But there is a dark side to ignorance.

“It was Winston Churchill who said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” he says.

“There has been debate ever since the founding of democracy about the extent to which it is possible to have an informed voting public.

“It would be great if we had a really informed and scientifically literate voting public, but I think that’s probably impossible.”

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