Research suggests that choosing not to know the consequences allows people to act selfishly while maintaining a positive self-image.
When given the option of knowing how their actions will affect someone else, 40% of people will choose ignorance, often having an excuse for acting selfishly, according to a study 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, a doctoral student at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “We wanted to understand how widespread and harmful ignorance is, as well as why people engage in it.”
The research was published October 19 in the journal Psychological bulletin.
Methodology and main conclusions
Fu and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 22 research studies that included a total of 6,531 participants. All studies were conducted in research laboratories or online, and most followed a protocol in which some participants were informed of the consequences of their actions, while others could choose whether or not to know the consequences.
In one example, participants had to choose between receiving a smaller reward ($5) or a larger reward ($6). If they choose $5, an anonymous peer (or charity) will receive $5 as well. However, if they chose the higher reward of $6, the other recipient would only receive $1. One group of participants had the opportunity to learn about the consequences of their choice, while another group was spontaneously informed of the consequences.
Across studies, researchers found that when given a choice, 40% of people chose not to know the consequences of their actions. This willful ignorance was associated with less altruism: People were 15.6 percentage points more likely to be generous to another person when they were told the consequences of their choice compared to when they were allowed to remain in ignorance.
Causes and repercussions
The researchers hypothesized that one reason for this willful ignorance may be that some people act altruistically because they want to maintain a positive image of themselves. In these cases, willful ignorance may allow them to maintain this self-image without having to act altruistically.
A meta-analysis confirmed this, according to study co-author Shaul Shalvi, Ph.D., professor of behavioral ethics at the University of Amsterdam. In fact, people who chose to know the consequences of their actions were 7 percentage points more generous than participants who received the information by default. This suggests that truly influential people choose to know the consequences of their actions.
“The results are fascinating because they suggest that much of the altruistic behavior we observe is driven by the desire to behave as others expect us to do,” Shalvi said. “Although most people are willing to do the right thing when they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions, this willingness is not always because people care about others. Part of the reason people act altruistically is due to social pressures as well as their desire to see themselves as In a good light.Since justice is often expensive and requires people to give up their time, money, and effort, ignorance provides an easy way out.
Scope and future research
All studies included in this meta-analysis were conducted in laboratories 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 contexts, and explore ways to combat this behavior, the researchers say.
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