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The Ignorance Trap


Explanations > Learning Theory > The Ignorance Trap

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When we do not know something, there are two ways in which we can 'not know'. First, we can know that we do not know. And then we can not know that we do not know. This latter case is the 'ignorance trap' as it leads us into actions where we act in foolish ways without realizing that we are being foolish. People can suffer from the curse of ignorance in a few specific areas, or may be generally afflicted, with a tendency to assume superiority in a wide range of areas.

The result may be tragedy or comedy, perhaps depending on your viewpoint, as the person acts and speaks as if they were an expert.

There are two forms of ignorance. A naively ignorant person is innocent of knowledge but is open to learning. They do not mind discovering they are ignorant and find discovery and learning a pleasant and wondrous experience. An aggressively ignorant person does not like to feel ignorant and avoids learning. In this way, they become perpetual victims of the ignorance trap.


A high school head of department berates an older teacher for not following the structured lesson plans. She does not understand how the teacher works beyond 'step 1 do this' instruction that may help less experienced teachers but dumbs down teaching and so also dumbs down learning. She ignores the teacher's great results and that all the students want to be in the teacher's class, focusing blindly on her requirement to follow process. The teacher tries explaining but the rationale falls on uncomprehending and hence deaf ears.

A person talks confidently about what the weather will be in three months, based on mythological methods, such as the preponderance of berries, rather than real knowledge of meteorology.


In any given topic, ignorance comes in several levels. First, people can realize that there are things to know that they do not know.

Secondly, and where the trap happens, they can not know what they do not know. This creates an illusion where what they know seems to be all there is to know. In this way they seem, at least to themselves, to be knowledgeable and wise. To others who realize the truth, this may seem as crass stupidity or ridiculous arrogance.

At a third level, even when confronted with evidence of their ignorance and proof of things they do not know, they still cling to the illusion of full knowledge. This may be due to true ignorance or denial caused by the discomfort that would be felt if ignorance was admitted.

There is a saying: 'Ignorance is bliss'. Whilst not necessarily blissful, not knowing that you are ignorant is certainly more pleasant than realizing your cognitive limitations.

An ignorant person who does not know they are ignorant may easily feel important and wise. For the aggressively ignorant, not knowing has a significant impact on their sense of identity as it both damages their self-esteem and may reduce their social status, particularly if they define themselves as clever and want others to look up to them with regard to what they know.

The realization of ignorance may affect the sense of control, as in order to manage things around us we first need to understand them. This drives some to learn, although this leads to ongoing loss of control that continues through the process of learning until full understanding is gained. Those who cannot stand this period of discomfort may resort to various dysfunctional coping mechanisms which reduce the discomfort but result in continued ignorance.

Ignorance can lead to denial and even where faced with evidence the aggressively ignorant person may literally ignore the truth. This can lead to both tragedy and comedy, and there are many plays and movies where ignorance has a major part in the plot.

This is also called the 'Dunning–Kruger effect', after the research by Kruger and Dunning (1999), who noted that, for any given skill, incompetent people will:

  • Overestimate their own ability
  • Not recognize the real ability of others
  • Not realize how much they do not know
  • If successfully trained, will realize and acknowledge these errors

The ignorance trap is also a variant of illusory superiority, where people think they are better than they really are.

So what?

Beware of trying to persuade people who will not understand what you are saying, and hence assume you are talking nonsense. Listen to them to understand how they understand and how they are ignorant, and then choose your words carefully.

See also

Control, Identity, The Knowledge Trap


Kruger, J. and Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, 6, 1121–34  

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