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Ignorance Isn’t Only Bliss …

We’ve all heard that knowledge is power, but a new study in the current issue of the RAND Journal of Economics turns that old hoary chestnut on its head, arguing that ignorance is the real key to influence.

The study, by University of Southern California researchers
Isabelle Brocas and Juan D. Carillo, is the first to look at scenarios in which
power is derived from controlling the amount of public information available,
as opposed to guarding private secrets.But
the parties manipulating the information must also choose to remain uninformed,
which can have important negative consequences for them.

The paper cites real-world examples of this phenomenon,
including the case of pharmaceutical giant Merck, which released a study five
years after its Vioxx came on the market that showed the drug increased
the risk of heart attacks. The company is now in the midst of a $4.85 billion

In a similar vein, heads of governmental committees can call
for an early vote on an issue, such as funding for complex programs or
continuing the search for weapons of mass destruction, denying members -- and
themselves – the chance to learn more.

“Overall, the ability to control the flow of news and remain
publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the
actions of the follower,” the researchers wrote. “Our result suggestd that the
chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee,
electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information.”

The good news: Competition, especially through media
diversity and publicly funded research, encourages media outlets to circulate
more information, and severely blunts the “influence through ignorance” effect.