According to new research, 40 percent of people would prefer not to know the consequences of their actions – choosing ignorance – so that they have an excuse to act selfishly.
“Examples of such willful ignorance abound in everyday life, such as when consumers ignore information about the problematic origins of the products they buy,” lead author Linh Vu, MS, a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands said in a statement. “We wanted to know just how prevalent and how harmful willful ignorance is, as well as why people engage in it.”
Vu and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 22 previously published studies that had a total of 6,531 participants. Each study took place either in a research laboratory or online, and all of them included some sort of arrangement where some participants learned the consequences of their actions, while others were able to decline this information if they wished.
For example, in one important study, participants could choose to receive $6 for themselves and $1 for another recipient. Alternatively, the participant, known as the “decision maker” could elect to receive $5 and the same amount would be paid to another recipient. Obviously, the first option is far less altruistic than the second.
In the control condition, whereby participants knew the consequences of their decision, 74 percent acted altruistically and chose the second option that provided greater benefits for another recipient at the cost of $1 for themselves. However, in a situation where the participants did not know how their choice would impact others – where they merely understood there was a 50 percent chance their decision would negatively impact the other recipient – things were different.
In this setup, participants could secretly choose to learn the outcome of selecting the first or second options. The study found that around 44 percent of the decision-makers chose ignorance. The study showed that some people were actively avoiding information, especially if that information related directly to their choices.
This, the authors argued, allowed these participants to continue to act selfishly while still maintaining a sense of themselves as altruistic individuals.
The new meta-analysis backed up this interpretation. According to Shaul Shalvi, a co-author and professor of behavioral ethics at the University of Amsterdam, those who chose to learn the consequences of their actions were 7 percent points more likely to be altruistic when compared to participants who were given the information by default. This suggests that truly generous people opt to learn about the outcomes of their choices.
“The findings are fascinating as they suggest a lot of the altruistic behaviors we observe are driven by a desire to behave as others expect us to,” Shalvi explained.
“While most people are willing to do the right thing when they are fully informed of the consequences of their actions, this willingness is not always because people care for others. A part of the reasons why people act altruistically is due to societal pressures as well as their desire to view themselves in a good light. Since being righteous is often costly, demanding people to give up their time, money, and effort, ignorance offers an easy way out.”
Further research is needed to explore how willful ignorance manifests in other settings and cultures, and how this can be challenged.
The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.