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In those cases, willful ignorance can allow them to maintain that self-image without having to act in an altruistic way. Credit: Neuroscience News

Choosing Ignorance: 40% Shun Consequence Knowledge for Selfish Gains

Summary: New research unveiled that when faced with a choice, 40% of individuals opt to remain ignorant about how their decisions impact others, often leveraging this unawareness to act more selfishly.

The researchers equate this behavior to consumers who turn a blind eye to the problematic origins of products they purchase. Within the studies analyzed, evidence surfaced indicating that when participants were made aware of the consequences of their actions, there was a 15.6% rise in altruistic behavior.

This suggests that while many might act out of a desire to maintain a positive self-perception, much of the perceived altruism could be rooted more in societal pressures and self-view rather than a genuine regard for others’ well-being.

Key Facts:

  1. When given an option, 40% chose not to learn the consequences of their decisions.
  2. Willful ignorance led to a 15.6 percentage point drop in altruistic behavior.
  3. People informed about their action’s consequences were 7% more likely to act generously than those informed by default, indicating true altruism.

Source: APA

When given the choice to learn how their actions will affect someone else, 40% of people will choose ignorance, often in order to have an excuse to act selfishly, according to research published by the American Psychological Association. 

“Examples of such willful ignorance abound in everyday life, such as when consumers ignore information about the problematic origins of the products they buy,” said lead author Linh Vu, MS, a doctoral candidate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

“We wanted to know just how prevalent and how harmful willful ignorance is, as well as why people engage in it.”

The research was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

Vu and her colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 22 research studies with a total of 6,531 participants. The studies were all conducted in research labs or online, and most followed a protocol in which some participants were told the consequences of their actions, while others could choose whether to learn the consequences or not. 

In one example, participants had to decide between receiving a smaller reward ($5) or a larger reward ($6). If they chose $5, then an anonymous peer (or charity) would also receive $5. If they chose the larger $6 reward, however, the other recipient would receive only $1. One set of participants were offered the option to learn the consequences of their choice, while another group was automatically told the consequences.

Across the studies, the researchers found that when given an option, 40% of people chose not to learn the consequences of their actions. That willful ignorance was correlated with less altruism: People were 15.6 percentage points more likely to be generous to someone else when they were told the consequences of their choice compared with when they were allowed to remain ignorant.

The researchers hypothesized that one reason for willful ignorance might be that some people behave altruistically because they want to maintain a positive self-image of being an altruistic person. In those cases, willful ignorance can allow them to maintain that self-image without having to act in an altruistic way.

The meta-analysis backed that up, according to study co-author Shaul Shalvi, PhD, a professor of behavioral ethics at the University of Amsterdam. That’s because people who chose to learn the consequences of their action were 7 percentage points more likely to be generous compared with participants who were given information by default. That suggests that truly altruistic people choose to learn the consequences of their actions. 

“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 said.

“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.”

All of the studies included in this meta-analysis took place in labs in the United States or Western Europe, or on online platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. Future research should aim to examine willful ignorance in more diverse settings, according to the researchers, and to investigate ways to combat this behavior.

About this psychology research news

Author: James Sliwa
Source: APA
Contact: James Sliwa – APA
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Ignorance by Choice: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Underlying Motives of Willful Ignorance and Its Consequences” by Shaul Shalvi et al. Psychological Bulletin


Ignorance by Choice: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Underlying Motives of Willful Ignorance and Its Consequences

People sometimes avoid information about the impact of their actions as an excuse to be selfish. Such “willful ignorance” reduces altruistic behavior and has detrimental effects in many consumer and organizational contexts.

We report the first meta-analysis on willful ignorance, testing the robustness of its impact on altruistic behavior and examining its underlying motives. We analyze 33,603 decisions made by 6,531 participants in 56 different treatment effects, all employing variations of an experimental paradigm assessing willful ignorance.

Meta-analytic results reveal that 40% of participants avoid easily obtainable information about the consequences of their actions on others, leading to a 15.6-percentage point decrease in altruistic behavior compared to when information is provided.

We discuss the motives behind willful ignorance and provide evidence consistent with excuse-seeking behaviors to maintain a positive self-image.

We investigate the moderators of willful ignorance and address the theoretical, methodological, and practical implications of our findings on who engages in willful ignorance, as well as when and why.

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  1. A Sethuramiah has a horrid suggestion of actually using epigenetics to make us more altruistic, if you don’t see the horror in that suggestion I fear for the future of mankind.
    That said, the reason we choose to remain ignorant is purely psychological. We’re bombarded with marketing messages tugging at our altruistic side, and it’s exhausting. We all need to rely on our selfish needs as we expect others to do likewise and in that way we better our lives one person at a time. We as kind and caring individuals are rightfully overwhelmed through altruism when the entire global burden is placed on an individuals shoulders, and done so in many cases out of marketing greed.

  2. It is time neuroscience finds some unselfish genes that promote altruism! We may even use epigenetics to modify existing genes.
    The present wars and the deep divides will continue with scientific sanction of Selfish genes.

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