A new study explored reasons why some citizens of the former East Germany chose not to view files that the Stasi, the notorious secret police force, kept of them when the archives were opened in 1991. Aside from claiming that the information is not relevant, most people stated that they wanted to avoid finding out that one of their colleagues or family members was a Stasi informant and that viewing those files would impact their ability to trust others. The study was published in Cognition.
Curiosity, the desire to obtain knowledge, is one of the defining traits of human beings. Yet there are situations when people willingly choose not to know. This phenomenon — deliberate ignorance — has been attracting a growing interest from researchers in various scientific disciplines.
When a society faces a fundamental transition, such as moving from war to peace or from dictatorship to democracy, people must find ways to interpret, remember or ignore past experiences and include that interpretation into the collective memory of the group in a way that allows the society to move forward.
In doing this, people can choose to ignore the misdeeds of the past in order to stabilize current power relations and ignore conflict or they can remember them in order to seek justice and prevent the defeated ideology from resurging. While the first approach can leave psychological traumas and wounds unhealed and create what is referred to as “neglected trauma” of the social group, the other approach can, in time, lead to the persecution of the innocent and create new social divisions.
“People’s individual choices of how to deal with the past unfold against the background of collective memory politics. However, because the rise of memory studies has thus far focused on the collective level, little is known about how societal transformations impact individual decisions on whether and how to remember the past,” the authors of the new study wrote.
They add that the opening of the archives of the Stasi in 1991 provides a unique opportunity to study how dealing with memories of the past functions on the individual level. The Stasi at one point had almost 300,000 employees and unofficial collaborators in a country with a population of around 16 million people. One in every 50 East German citizens worked for the Stasi. It tracked and wiretapped East Germans on a massive scale.
When archives were opened, it became a social norm for citizens to view their files. After the reunification of Germany, leading politicians called on citizens to view their files, arguing that through this action citizens could “reclaim the life that had been stolen from them—realizing, for instance, that they had been prevented from travelling, attending university, or pursuing a particular career path as part of the Stasi’s psychological warfare.” Yet, in spite of this, some citizens chose not to view their files.
The authors of this study wanted to explore the reasons for this choice. They interviewed 22 citizens of former East Germany and administered a survey to an additional 134. In the interview, participants were asked about the reasons for not viewing their Stasi files. The survey asked participants to check reasons for not wanting to view the files from a list of reasons that was provided. All participants were at least 47 years of age.
Almost 4 out of every 5 respondents listed that the information contained in the files is not relevant. However, lack of relevance was rarely the only reason listed. The second most common reason had to do with preserving social relationships and the ability to trust others. Worries that, in the files, they would discover that their colleagues or family members were Stasi informants was listed by more than half of participants. 44% stated that the findings would impact their ability to trust others.
These reasons were correlated – people who cited their worries about family or colleagues being the informants also tended to state that the information in the file might impact their ability to trust others or their feeling of being able to accurately judge the character of others.
Problems with bureaucracy, utility and credibility of information and political convictions as well as discontent with how East Germany is remembered were also listed as reasons but not as often. Interviews yielded similar results – participants most often disputed the relevance of the data, but many of them voiced worries that their close others were informants and that information confirming that could cause major discord in their families and social circles, which they wanted to avoid.
“Deliberate ignorance can be an adaptive tool for managing emotional threats and maintaining social relations, in transformative settings and beyond. Learning about others’ wrongdoings can tear families and friends apart and undermine people’s ability to trust at a moment when they may already feel extremely insecure and even more dependent on a close-knit social network. Deliberate ignorance can help to control the potentially detrimental effects of this kind of knowledge. It can also be used to preserve a positive self-image and to dodge difficult personal truths. Yet truth and knowledge are essential to redress sins of the past,” the study authors conclude.
The study contributes to scientific knowledge on deliberate ignorance. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the topic of the Stasi archives is very specific to the East German context and the study did not take into account the costs and benefits of ignoring or accepting the information contained in the archives. In situations when information is more obviously beneficial, results might be different. Finally, the study was based on self-reports of motivation and people may not be aware or willing to publicly share their ’true’ motives.
The study, “Why people choose deliberate ignorance in times of societal transformation”, was authored by Ralph Hertwig and Dagmar Ellerbrock.