Innocence Versus Insight

by Robin Hanson, September 9, 2006.

There seems to be a fundamental tradeoff between innocence and insight. This tradeoff occurs at both personal and social levels. Adam and Eve are said to have lost their place in Eden because they ate from the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil;" their knowledge cost them their innocence and comfort. Our insight often comes at a similar price.

Innocence is a central concept in human affairs. It appears often in literature, but has been largely ignored by social science. Let us try to do better.

Innocence seems to be a potentially attractive kind of ignorance. Apparently, in many social contexts ignorance can be a good thing, in part because helps to preserve idealism. Idealism is a simplified view of the world that supports optimism about the abilities or motives of oneself, one's associates, one's groups, and of related social processes. So why might idealism be a good thing, and how could ignorance help it? Consider some examples.

First, consider marriage. In societies with strong arranged marriages, the marriage relation is more innocent. Married people there have not had several deep and perhaps sexual relations before they are married. This supposedly helps spouses become more deeply attached to each other, with fewer threats from other past or future or concurrent relations. This attachment comes at the cost of less exploration, which presumably means partners are not as well matched with each other.

Cultural variation in marital innocence might represent multiple equilibria. In a society where most people experiment, those who do not experiment may seem timid and undesired. In a society where most people do not experiment, those who do experiment may seem to lack self-control and an ability to commit.

Second, consider patriotism and travel. Someone who has had little contact with other nations or cultures might find it easy to innocently presume that his nation and culture are superior. Because of this, in some places those who travel may be suspected of being less loyal to associates and the local community, and of being more at risk of adopting disapproved foreign attitudes and customs. In other places, travel may be celebrated, because those who travel more show they have more social contacts, wealth, and knowledge of the world, while those who travel less appear dull and timid.

Third, consider attitudes toward careers, as expressed for example by students applying to graduate school. In their statement of purpose, some students focus on their enthusiasm for a certain world of ideas, while other students focus on their personal career ambitions. In a discipline where most students focus on career ambitions, those who focus on ideas may seem naive and perhaps unwilling to compromise enough to succeed. In a discipline where most students focus on ideas, those who focus on career ambitions may appear to have insufficient interest to keep them in the field over the long run. One equilibria may select more ambitious and realistic students, while the other one may select more honestly interested but naive students.

Finally, consider self-deception. Humans naturally think more highly of themselves and their communities than their evidence can justify, but deny that they are biased in this way. This sincere confidence helps people to convince others to think highly of them, and to convince their group of their strong attachment to it. If you force yourself to face facts squarely you may gain better insight into yourself and human nature, and perhaps even signal a certain rare ability to achieve this result. But you may less convince others of your other abilities, and to convince your group of your loyalty.

What can we learn from these examples? We can see that idealism, a simplified optimistic vision of abilities and motives, can help one to become more deeply attached to associates and groups. This innocence often comes at the expense of insight however, and people often prefer to signal that they have the ability to gain insight.

It should be noted that innocent idealistic visions of the world can be quite negative about some things, as long as they are positive about the innocent person and his associates. For example, an innocent might see sex as dirty and disgusting, to support a romantic vision of relationships. Or an innocent might see all politicians as corrupt, supporting a vision of ordinary voters as uncorrupted.

There are so many interesting questions about innocence. To start, idealistic people often seem to know how acquiring more insight would on average change their attitudes. For example, the young often know about the attitudes the old have on average toward marriage, careers, nations, and so on. Young who do not acquire insight from this fact need to explain such age differences in differing preferences or abilities, rather than differing information. Are they right, or do they fool themselves?

Another obvious question is whether we expect on average to see too much insight or too much innocence. Excess signaling could push it either way, as far as I can see. We could avoid insight too much to signal our loyalty and confidence, or we could pursue insight too much to signal our ability and courage. Which is it?

A related question is the optimal personal tradeoff between innocence and insight. There are always things we could do which would teach us more about ourselves, our local associates and community, and about how much we approve of local customs and mores. If we take such actions, we may gain the benefit of insight, but we may run the risk of seeming less attractive and attached to our associates, and of becoming less bound to common mores.

It seems clear to me that the optimum choice is interior, containing both insight and innocence. Extreme examples can make this point clear. For example, consider the possibility of having sex with animals. I expect that if I tried this, I would learn more about myself, and I might find out that I liked and approved of such acts. But I know that this would horrify the people around me. Even my being willing to experiment with such things might scare the begezus out of them. So it seems prudent for me to just preserve my innocence on this subject.

At the other extreme, the idea of living in a small tight community which avoids outsiders has some attractions, but mostly repels me. There the benefits of innocence seem to clearly come at too high a price. But what is the optimal tradeoff in-between these extremes? Do I too easily assume that the tradeoff my local culture rewards is globally best?

So many questions. Inquiring minds want to know. Innocent minds might not want to know.

For their comments I thank Colleen Berndt, Nick Bostrom, Bryan Caplan, Sun Cho, Yan Li, Ute Shaw, and Alex Tabbarok.

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