The American psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested that there exists, in many of us, a general feeling of dread towards being curious and acquiring knowledge. Maslow stated that to avoid anxiety, many people refuse to learn about the world and their place in it. He called this phenomenon the ‘Fear of Knowing’.
According to Maslow, there are three reasons why people may choose to avoid gaining this type of knowledge. The first is that with attaining some kinds of knowledge, especially self-knowledge, comes pain. This was one of Freud’s key discoveries. Freud found that people tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause them to despise themselves or indeed any information that makes them feel inferior, evil or worthless.
This rejection of knowledge is a psychological tool used to protect our self-esteem. It exists so that we can avoid becoming conscious of the unpleasant truths about ourselves and so that we can keep our self-respect intact. But Freud found that this refusal to see oneself as what they truly are like was a great cause of psychological illness. He claimed, therefore, that “to be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make”.
Many also choose to shun knowledge because in acquiring it, it may expose them to societal danger. In most religions, for example, unquestioning belief is favoured over knowledge. Indeed, some forms of knowledge are either forbidden or reserved for a few special people. As a result, in some religious cultures in the world today, those who question blind faith and seek knowledge are sometimes punished heavily.
There is thus an intrusive element to knowledge. A common phenomenon that therapists encounter is that some of their female clients make an unconscious connection between intelligence and masculinity. These women find that to be curious is defeminizing in the world they live in, and find themselves shunned by men around them. Something similar can be seen in the child who asks too many questions and the victim of abuse or exploitation. In all these cases, one avoids asking too many questions and knowing too much because they fear being marginalised by those around them who seek to discourage curiosity and learning.
Some people avoid seeking knowledge because they refuse to accept the responsibility that inevitably comes with it. Maslow suggests that knowledge and action are very closely bound together, and so some fear to know because they fear to do. This fear is evident in the Germans who lived near the Dachau concentration camp. For these people, it was safer to be blind to knowledge and not know what was going on. If they knew, they would either have to do something about it or live with the guilt of their inaction. In the same way, some people decide that it is better not to know about something like the exploitation of people, animals or natural resources around the world because if they learn about these things, they would either be compelled to act or be forced to feel ashamed.
By deciding not to seek knowledge about their place in the world, some avoid being aware of their flaws, some avoid being ostracized from society, and some avoid the responsibility that comes with knowing uncomfortable truths. It seems, therefore, that fear of knowledge exists as a cognitive effort to reduce anxiety. It renders everything unfamiliar, mysterious and unexpected as non-threatening.