"The Need to Know and the Fear of Knowing", by Abraham Maslow





Abraham H. Maslow

Toward a psychology of being

(1955)




FEAR OF KNOWLEDGE: EVASION OF KNOWLEDGE : PAINS AND DANGERS OF KNOWING



"From our point of view, Freud’s greatest discovery is that the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself — of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny. We have discovered that fear of knowledge of oneself is very often isomorphic with, and parallel with, fear of the outside world. That is, inner problems and outer problems tend to be deeply similar and to be related to each other. Therefore we speak simply of fear of knowledge in general, without discriminating too sharply fear-of-the-inner from fear-of-the-outer.


In general this kind of fear is defensive, in the sense that it is a protection of our self-esteem, of our love and respect for ourselves. We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful. We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defenses, which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truths. And in psychotherapy the maneuvers by which we continue avoiding this consciousness of painful truth, the ways in which we fight the efforts of the therapist to help us see the truth, we call “resistance.”


All the techniques of the therapist are in one way or another truth-revealing, or are ways of strengthening the patient so he can bear the truth. (“To be completely honest with oneself is the very best effort a human being can make.”S. Freud.) But there is another kind of truth we tend to evade. Not only do we hang on to our psychopathology, but also we tend to evade personal growth because this, too, can bring another kind of fear, of awe, of feelings of weakness and inadequacy. And so we find another kind of resistance, a denying of our best side, of our talents, of our finest impulses, of our highest potentialities, of our creativeness. In brief, this is the struggle against our own greatness, the fear of hubris.


Here we are reminded that our own Adam and Eve myth, with its dangerous Tree of Knowledge that mustn’t be touched, is paralleled in many other cultures which also feel that ultimate knowledge is something reserved for the gods. Most religions have had a thread of anti-intellectualism (along with other threads, of course), some trace of preference for faith or belief or piety rather than for knowledge, or the feeling that some forms of knowledge were too dangerous to meddle with and had best be forbidden or reserved to a few special people. In most cultures those revolutionaries who defied the gods by seeking out their secrets were punished heavily, like Adam and Eve, Prometheus and Oedipus, and have been remembered as warnings to all others not to try to be godlike. And, if I may say it in a very condensed way, it is precisely the god-like in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against.


This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods. Every one of our great creators, our god-like people, has testified to the element of courage that is needed in the lonely moment of creation, affirming something new (contradictory to the old). This is a kind of daring, a going out in front all alone, a defiance, a challenge. The moment of fright is quite understandable but must nevertheless be overcome if creation is to be possible. Thus to discover in oneself a great talent can certainly bring exhilaration but it also brings a fear of the dangers and responsibilities and duties of being a leader and of being all alone. Responsibility can be seen as a heavy burden and evaded as long as possible.

(...)



THE AVOIDANCE OF KNOWLEDGE AS AVOIDANCE OF RESPONSIBILITY



Anxiety and timidity not only bend curiosity and knowing and understanding to their own ends, using them so to speak, as tools for allaying anxiety, but also the lack of curiosity can be an active or a passive expression of anxiety and fear. (This is not the same as the atrophy of curiosity through disuse.) That is, we can seek knowledge in order to reduce anxiety and we can also avoid knowing in order to reduce anxiety. To use Freudian language, incuriosity, learning difficulties, pseudo-stupidity can be a defense. (...)


It was certainly safer for the Germans living near Dachau not to know what was going on, to be blind and pseudo-stupid. For if they knew, they would either have had to do something about it or else feel guilty about being cowards. The child, too, can play this same trick, denying, refusing to see what is plain to anyone else: that his father is a contemptible weakling, or that his mother doesn’t really love him. This kind of knowledge is a call for action which is impossible. Better not to know.


In any case, we now know enough about anxiety and cognition to reject the extreme position that many philosophers and psychological theorists have held for centuries, that all cognitive needs are instigated by anxiety and are only efforts to reduce anxiety. For many years, this seemed plausible, but now our animal and child experiments contradict this theory in its pure form, for they all show that, generally, anxiety kills curiosity and exploration, and that they are mutually incompatible, especially when anxiety is extreme. The cognitive needs show themselves most clearly in safe and non-anxious situations.

(...)


It seems quite clear that the need to know, if we are to understand it well, must be integrated with fear of knowing, with anxiety, with needs for safety and security. We wind up with a dialectical back and forth relationship which is simultaneously a struggle between fear and courage. All those psychological and social factors that increase fear will cut our impulse to know; all factors that permit courage, freedom and boldness will thereby also free our need to know."



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