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Ethics and morality, Social and behavioural

Why do we engage in wilful ignorance?

Recent meta-analysis dives into why we ignore the consequences of our actions.

27 November 2023

By Emily Reynolds

We all engage in wilful ignorance from time to time — from buying from online retailers we know are unethical to ignoring the impact of our diets on climate change, none of us are angels. While looking the other way can help us avoid uncomfortable information that might make us question our actions, it may also reduce our desire to engage in behaviour that benefits others. How, and to what degree, is explored in a new study published in Psychological Bulletin by Linh Vu and colleagues. 

In order to explore both the nature of wilful ignorance and its impact on altruistic behaviour, the team conducted a meta-analysis of existing literature. Studies that made the final cut…

●    presented participants with a choice that had consequences for both them and another party
●    included “a state of conflict in which the interests of the decision maker and the recipient are misaligned”, and another in which they were aligned
●    and included either a condition in which participants had to know of the consequences of their actions, or one where they choose between making a decision with or without knowledge of the consequences. 

The final sample contained 22 articles, eight of which were unpublished and shared with the team by researchers. The collective data represented 33,603 decisions made by 6,531 participants. All participants came from largely WEIRD societies, with the majority of studies taking place in Germany and the United States, and others in Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Finally, all studies analysed had between-subject designs, due to lack of within-subject data.

The team looked at several key measures. The first was the impact of wilful ignorance on altruistic behaviour, and particularly on how altruistic behaviour differed between those who knew the consequences of their actions and those who did not. The team was also interested in whether participants gave excuses for being selfish, and whether participants who actively ask for information, rather than have it given to them, behave more altruistically. 

Analyses revealed that 39.8% of participants chose to be wilfully ignorant about their decisions (such as choosing how much money to take for themselves and how much to give to another participant), avoiding information about the impact their decision would have on others. This was associated with a decrease in altruistic behaviour: there was a 15.6% drop in altruistic decisions among those who actively chose not to receive this information compared to those who had the information. On the other hand, those who sought information on the consequences of their actions were more likely to behave altruistically: 6.9% more so than those who were simply given the information.

The researchers looked at rewards and harm of each type of decision, too. Both the temptation of higher rewards and potential harm did increase altruistic choices both for those who were given and not given information. However, it did not differ between the two conditions at all, suggesting again that self-interest is motivating these choices.      

The team suggests that, overall, the evidence “supports the notion that people engage in ignorance (at least partially) to provide an excuse for selfishness”: people choose not to hear information that they know will force them to decide whether or not to be altruistic. To drive this conclusion home, they highlight evidence from specific articles noting that 20% to 40% of participants stated they would be willing to actually pay to remain ignorant about negative consequences to others. 

Interestingly, several studies also highlighted that removing excuses not to act altruistically can change behaviour. Two studies, for example, asked participants how willing they were to acquire extra information only after they had revealed how altruistic they felt they were as a person, giving them no room to “pretend they would have been altruistic with full information.” Here, 80% said they would be willing to acquire information, indicating that removing the option to make excuses could be one way of reducing wilful ignorance.

As for increasing altruistic behaviour, the team suggests moving away from an emphasis on behaviour we ‘should’ be doing. This, they say, can put people under pressure, threaten their self-image, and create avoidance. Instead, letting people remind themselves of their existing moral values before making decisions could be a better way of making them engage with the fallout of their decisions. 

Read the article in full: https://doi.org/10.1037/bul000039