Ignorance is Free and Free is What People Want

I began reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely sometime back. I felt like I was reading my thought process as well as experience; the author starts off with talk of an accident that changed his views, I had also suffered an accident 5 years ago and subsequent events forced a complete revision of my understanding of people and their behavior.

The book describes different examples of “irrational behavior” by people. One of the experiments that Dan describes was to show that people tend to discard logic when they see something being offered for “FREE!”. People do not consider their likes/dislikes when offered a free option and choose the item for which they did not show a preference for before it was made free. Basically, people did not figure out the potential gain/loss when given the option to get something for free.

In short, rationality is forgotten/ignored/avoided when the free offer is made. What does that have to do with “ignorance”?

The “price” of knowledge is “effort” and “time” devoted to gaining knowledge/information, an activity that doesn’t pay off all the time unless you choose a profession in your field of study (if it does pay off otherwise, it does so quite often in non-monetary ways). So the problem is very few people are driven to make themselves better informed or more knowledgeable regarding any particular issue because it is easier to “simply run with what is handed to one”, that is, any information or knowledge obtained from a source they “trust” automatically takes precedence over other information. [I keep trust in quotation marks because that is a subjective factor.]

Hence people will claim to have the requisite “information” or “knowledge” when in fact they have only a portion (maybe a small one even) of what is required. Based on that information, the person may take a certain action or display a certain behavior. Whether the information is wrong/incorrect is not much of a consideration as the prospect of a “price” dissuades the person (or even a group) enough to not make an attempt at verification (a slight modification is a possibility, a person or group can be discouraged from the act of verification by making them imagine of a high cost of verification or the consequences of verification, though that requires a significant degree of manipulation).

This partially explains why rumors and misinformation spread so quickly. People get to know something, either from a “trusted” source or because everyone else knows the same information, and begin to pass it on without stopping to check the reliability of what they know.

The way out is to obviously make people seek to verify what they know; though, frankly, I don’t see that happening. It appears as if people are becoming only consumers of any information/knowledge they come across and are not being proactive in verifying them, sometimes even defending the wrong information (very possibly as a defense mechanism to protect from the repercussions of their own actions brought about by the poor information similar to cognitive dissonance), as the days are going by. (As an example of avoiding the repercussions, see this from Al Jazeera.)

The resulting effect is plain for all to see; even as the world becomes more connected, it is becoming more polarized.

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