Research: Ignorance Leads to Dependence on Government

( [email protected] ) Nov 25, 2011 10:23 AM EST

People who lack knowledge about a complicated issue are more likely to avoid information about that issue and instead trust that government will do the right thing to solve the problem, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In a series of four separate experiments, Steven Shepherd, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and Professor Aaron C. Kay at Duke University demonstrated that ignorance about an issue leads people to become more dependent on government, which leads to greater trust in government, which, in turn, leads them to avoid learning more about the issue. The Nov. 7, 2011 article is titled, "On the Perpetuation of Ignorance: System Dependence, System Justification, and the Motivated Avoidance of Sociopolitical Information."

While people, in general, might be expected to seek more information when faced with a complex problem, they will actually do the opposite and avoid more information on the issue, because, “maintaining unfamiliarity is an ideal way to protect the psychologically comfortable (even if inaccurate) belief that the government is taking care of the problem,” the article states.

The research is based upon “system justification theory,” which “says that people have a general motivation to see the systems they live in – that is society and its laws, social norms, institutions, etc. – as fair, just, and legitimate,” Shepherd explained in an email to The Christian Post.

Uncertainty brings anxiety, Shepherd and Kay explain, and one way to deal with that anxiety is to “simply outsource personal responsibility to supposed qualified others.”

While this outsourcing makes sense in some situations where expertise is required, such as removing a tumor or constructing a building, Shepherd and Kay believe that the outsourcing is problematic for collective issues, such as global warming and economic recessions.

They write, “It can be argued that only the collective can help to resolve issues such as global warming or economic recessions, to the extent that these issues are caused, at least in part, by the collective. But, to the extent people feel overwhelmed or confused by social issues, they may come to feel as dependent on the government to solve environmental and economic problems as they are on their engineers to fix an unstable structure.”

When people put their trust in government to solve problems, they become less critical of the government.

“Being actively critical of something one is dependent on is thought to be psychologically uncomfortable, and therefore avoided in favor of increased perceptions of legitimacy, trust, and desirability. System justification theory posits that people are motivated to justify and legitimize the status quo and the system in which one lives.”

As people put more trust in government, they will avoid information suggesting that government is untrustworthy. This avoidance, in turn, leads to greater ignorance in the issues that government is trusted to handle.

Shepherd sees the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements as exceptions to his theory. Participants in those movements are showing a healthy dose of skepticism toward their government, Shepherd wrote to The Christian Post.

“Generally I think of those movements as representing instances where people are not following our model, possibly because these are people who feel a) a sense of personal control/efficacy, and b) feel like their behavior can create change. This sense of personal control and ability to create change may make people feel less dependent on the government, or change how they respond to perceived dependence. Either way, it means that the individual may be less inclined to truth authority and avoid the issues.”

Shepherd would like to do more research on those exceptions to his model – people who do not outsource personal responsibility to the government. He suspects though, he will find these people to have a “sense of autonomy and personal control,” “openness to experience” or “comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty.” He also expects that libertarians, those who want less government involvement in their lives, would be an exception.