Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to self-knowledge, ignorance is bliss - by Philip Hesketh May 2013
Today Ricky Gervais launches his 'Learn Guitar with David Brent' on YouTube. From Basil Fawlty, Alf Garnett and Rigsby, the situations have varied but the comedy often focuses on the same simple fact about human nature.
Namely, our complete inability to recognise our own hypocrisy. In political life, it drives us crazy but in a sitcom it makes us laugh.
I mention this fact because when I started out as a speaker I had three overriding principles. One of them was that I would never work weekends, because like most family men, this is reserved for spending time with my family and watching Sky Sports News.
I don't possess any guns, but if I did, you could say that I stuck to them really well regarding this principle. Until that was, those lovely people at Nike Golf offered me a speaking engagement.
In the Dominican Republic.
All expenses paid.
Only two guests; me and Nick Faldo.
First day playing the 'Teeth of the Dog' golf course, second day speaking to the world wide Nike Golf sales force, day three winding down on the beach, and then home.
Getting back late Sunday night.
Don't judge me too much on this will you?
Because, after much searching of the soul, not to mention my garage for the golf clubs, I decided that only a fool would dispense with this clearly superfluous principle. So I'm now the proud possessor of just two - with possibly a third depending upon the destination. I'm happy to report that even my wife resigned herself to me going when she finally lost her grip on my trouser leg as I got into the taxi.
This only slightly exaggerated story is a good example of how we all avoid the truth about ourselves. Kate Sweeney, Professor of Psychology at UC Riverside, declared that people have a tendency to seek information that confirms their belief rather than disproves it. For instance, only a fool would turn down a gig in the Caribbean, right?
Sweeney added that if this unwanted 'self-knowledge' required us to take undesired actions then so be it. The more we expect bad news, the more effort we make to avoid it. We bury our head in the sand, look the other way, turn a blind eye and occasionally the other cheek. Not all at the same time, obviously.
(I recall football Craig Bellamy saying of his then manager, Graeme Souness: "He went behind my back right in front of my face." It's better than you can make up isn't it?) So are there any times when avoiding learning something about yourself makes sense? Well perhaps a health screening for a genetic condition is such an occasion. Discovering that you've got an increased risk of a disease in old age that you can't do anything about may prove to be just one more thing to worry about.
The trick is to know which information to avoid. However, we can't do this without knowing what the information is. But then once you've learnt the information you can't unlearn it. It's a Catch 22 situation to which, alas, I offer no answers. All I can do is point out that avoiding information is a much more rational strategy for dealing with the complexities of a frightening world than it might first appear.
There's a good reason why we value the innocence of youth: what you don't know, you can't worry about. So next time, I'm hiding the golf clubs and telling her I'm off to Croydon.
When we laugh at the hypocrisies of a sitcom character, it's also a laugh of uncomfortable recognition. As much as we'd prefer to avoid the information, in our heart of hearts we know we're all hypocrites.
Best to ask a real friend what it is about you that really irritates them.
Then stop doing it.
You'll be the better for it in the long run.