“Shooting the messenger” is a popular metaphor to highlight that those who deliver warnings most often are blamed, as if they were responsible for the reason for the warning. Meanwhile and as a result, warnings are also not considered.

This saying underlines that the norm is the exact opposite of the objectives of early warning and strategic foresight. Moreover, it shows that we, practitioners of early warning and strategic foresight, may be blamed. We could be blamed even though we have at heart to improve the situation and even though listening to us would indeed allow for preparedness and best response.

Faced with such a conundrum, how can we improve the odds to see decision makers pay heed to our early warning and strategic foresight products. Accessorily, how can we also protect ourselves from “being shot”?

We saw previously that if we were carefully following necessary steps to deliver and communicate our early warnings and strategic foresight, then we were improving the likelihood to see decision-makers taking our warnings into account (Helene Lavoix, “Communication of Strategic Foresight and Early Warning“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 3 March 2021).

We also underlined that this apparently simple process was fraught with challenges. Among these hurdles, we find the many biases that may affect the cognition of decision makers and that potentially impact all steps of the delivery and communication process, and even the very delivery of warnings and strategic foresight.

In this article we thus focus on and explore a bias identified as “motivated ignorance” or “active information avoidance” (Daniel Williams, “Motivated Ignorance, Rationality, and Democratic Politics“, Synthese, 2020; Golman, R.et al. “Information Avoidance“, Journal of Economic Literature, 2017). This bias, alongside others, could contribute to derail early warning and strategic foresight or more broadly anticipation. Indeed, it could even prevent the very delivery and communication of warning and foresight products. We shall first explain this bias and the way it could operate in our case. Then, assuming it is at work, we shall suggest ways to mitigate it to improve the delivery of our warnings and foresight.

What is motivated ignorance?

When knowing is felt as too costly

According to Williams (Ibid), “motivated ignorance” means that an individual will purposefully refuse to know because the cost of knowing is too high. Here, we are concerned with the very act of getting and accessing the information. Thus, instances of “motivated ignorance” or “active information avoidance” can be: not opening a letter, not taking a test, not reading something, not listening to certain types of news. In some cases, it could be “shooting the messenger”. This refusal to know or intentional non-action can be both conscious and unconscious (Williams, ibid).

“Active information avoidance” (Golman et al., 2017, p. 97) must satisfy two conditions:

“(1) the individual is aware that the information is available, and

(2) the individual has free access to the information or would avoid the information even if access were free.”

The objective of the individuals engaged in motivated ignorance is to make sure they will not have to reach certain conclusions that they perceive as detrimental (Williams, Ibid).

How Tigranes came to cut off the head of the messenger

In the case of early warning and strategic foresight, motivated ignorance would mean that decision-makers make sure, consciously or not, they do not listen or do not have to listen to people who could give them knowledge, information and analysis they are seeking to ignore.

In the most extreme cases, decision-makers could decide to not-set up early warning systems or more broadly anticipation processes. If these systems already exist, then motivated ignorance could lead decision-makers to find various ways to not-listen to what they produce. Early warning systems and strategic foresight capabilities could even be destroyed, either directly or indirectly by making sure they cannot function properly.

More broadly, at the level of society, motivated ignorance could mean that those who may be perceived as holding knowledge, understanding or simply information one wishes to avoid will be excluded, whatever the way to achieve the exclusion can take. The knowledge, understanding and information produced will similarly be discarded through all possible means.

This goes a long way to explain the “Cassandra curse”, as well as ancient and popular metaphor such as “shooting the messenger”. We may recall here what Greek philosopher Plutarch told us in his Life of Lucullus:

“[25] Since the first messenger who told Tigranes that Lucullus was coming had his head cut off for his pains, no one else would tell him anything, and so he sat in ignorance while the fires of war were already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him…”

Plutarch, “The Life of LucullusThe Parallel Lives, published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914, University 0f Chicago, p. 551.

The story does not stop there. Plutarch let us know about the fate of Tigranes, and of those unfortunate enough to serve such rulers, even those who struggle against their leaders’ motivated ignorance with the best possible intention:

“The first of his friends who ventured to tell him the truth was Mithrobarzanes, and he, too, got no very excellent reward for his boldness of speech. He was sent at once against Lucullus with three thousand horsemen and a large force of infantry, under orders to bring the general alive, but to trample his men under foot. … A battle ensued, in which Mithrobarzanes fell fighting, and the rest of his forces took to flight and were cut to pieces, all except a few.
Upon this, Tigranes abandoned Tigranocerta, that great city which he had built, withdrew to the Taurus, and there began collecting his forces from every quarter….”

Plutarch, “The Life of LucullusThe Parallel Lives, published in Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914, University 0f Chicago, p. 553.

Repeating many times the same mistake, Tigranes is vanquished. On the contrary, Lucullus, the Roman aristocrat, General and Consul, listens to the advice of those who understand and warn him and synthesise them. Lucullus then adds to these analysis his own genius and is victorious.

From our perspective, Plutarch’s story highlights the importance of proper early warning and strategic foresight contrasted to what happens if motivated ignorance comes into play.

Knowing little enough for avoidance and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Furthermore, the deleterious impact of motivated ignorance can become even worse and more entrenched, as motivated ignorance ends up favouring motivated ignorance. Let us see how this vicious cercle can take place.

To be able to engage in motivated ignorance, individuals must have an idea of what they want to ignore. They need to know enough to know what to avoid. Thus, individuals who are engaged in motivated ignorance have a general knowledge and understanding of the issue of concern. Yet, most of the time, their knowledge will remain generic and superficial. If they had a specific and detailed knowledge then they could not claim ignorance, or if they did, then we would be in the realm of lies, which is a different phenomenon.

As a result, in instances of motivated ignorance, another bias can come into play, the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to this bias, “the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain” (Kruger and Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It…”, 1999). In other words, the less one knows about something, the best one thinks one is in this field.

The Dunning-Kruger effect could thus act as a factor reinforcing motivated ignorance. Indeed, by practicing motivated ignorance, individuals would make sure their knowledge remains superficial and thus both ignore inconvenient truth while strengthening their beliefs in their superiority in this field. As a way to mitigate the Dunning-Kruger effect is likely to increase the knowledge of individuals prey to the effect, motivated ignorance would forbid this solution.

Are we thus faced with an inescapable fate? Are those who, as Plutarch’s Tigranes, engage on the path of motivated ignorance doomed to remain ignorant and then finally succumb to their enemy or whatever threat and surprise they proudly ignore? As practitioners of early warning and strategic foresight are we doomed to fail and be shot if destiny or lack of fortune gives us as decision-makers individuals favouring motivated ignorance, or locate us in a time and civilization where motivated ignorance reign?

Let us explore further motivated ignorance, looking at the causes that lead people to engage in such behaviour. We may then try to devise strategies to act on causes. Note, however, that because we are facing active ignorance, our means to reduce this bias are singularly small. We certainly need to make sure we do not provoke motivated ignorance for our next warning or our next foresight product, while going on “speaking truth to power”. However, more difficult, if it is our very activity that is actively avoided, we need to work around it. Thus it will not be so much our products that must have specific characteristics, but other things outside them, these other things remaining to be determined according to specific cases. We shall again build upon Williams’ research (Ibid.).

The reasons for motivated ignorance

As exemplified in Plutarch’s story about Lucullus’ victory and Tigranes’ fate, motivated ignorance is a bias that can be extremely dangerous in terms of consequences, both at individual and collective level. To struggle against this bias, we need to understand why people would wish to ignore something, even though it would appear, from an external point of view, that knowing and understanding would be best.

Avoiding negative emotional states and countering strategies

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Featured image: Photo by Harun Benli via Pexels, free of use.


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Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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