When faced with moral decisions, many people are choosing ignorance about the repercussions of their actions. Recent studies explore why individuals might select the path of willful ignorance, and the findings are illuminating.
The Study of Choosing Ignorance
What makes a person deliberately overlook the consequences of their actions? According to the American Psychological Association, 40% of individuals, when given the choice, will opt for ignorance. More intriguingly, they often do so to give themselves leeway to act selfishly.
As lead author Linh Vu, MS, from the University of Amsterdam, describes it: “Everyday scenarios frequently show people choosing ignorance. A classic instance is when customers disregard the ethically questionable origins of products they purchase.” The pressing question that Vu and her colleagues grappled with was the extent and implications of such intentional ignorance.
The findings stem from a meta-analysis of 22 individual studies, encompassing a whopping 6,531 participants. These studies either took place in a research lab setting or online. A majority of these research initiatives followed a design where participants received information about the ramifications of their decisions, while others had the discretion to know or not.
Consider this example: Participants had to select between a $5 reward and a $6 reward. Choosing the former meant an anonymous person (or charity) would receive the same amount. If they opted for the latter, the anonymous entity would get a mere dollar. Some participants could decide whether to know the consequences, while others were informed outright.
A consistent finding across these studies? An astounding 40% actively chose ignorance. Furthermore, those who opted not to be informed were significantly less altruistic. There was a 15.6% greater likelihood of individuals showing generosity when they were cognizant of the results of their decisions.
Benevolence or Self-Image?
The research suggests that this inclination towards choosing ignorance could be linked to one’s desire to project a positive self-image. Willful ignorance permits individuals to retain this self-perception, even if they don’t act altruistically.
Study co-author Shaul Shalvi, a behavioral ethics professor at the University of Amsterdam, further shed light on this phenomenon. Individuals who sought to know the consequences were 7% more inclined to show generosity than those automatically provided with information. It indicates genuinely altruistic folks prefer to be in the know about their actions’ aftermath.
Shalvi points out, “A vast portion of altruistic tendencies we notice stems from societal expectations. While many willingly make ethical choices when informed of the outcomes, their motivation isn’t always altruistic. Societal pressure and the urge to perceive oneself positively play a significant role. Since righteous deeds often come with sacrifices, such as time, effort, or money, choosing ignorance becomes a convenient escape.”
However, one limitation to note: all studies under this meta-analysis were conducted in Western Europe or the US, or on platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk. This hints at the need for more diverse research settings in the future. After all, understanding this behavior in its entirety requires a broader perspective and could provide clues on countering such deliberate oversight.