What if you were given the choice of knowing how your actions would affect another human being — or not knowing — and selfishly just doing what you want for your own benefit? Which would you choose? Well, almost half of folks asked this question in a new study chose to stay ignorant of consequences and do what they want.
“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 candidate at the University of Amsterdam, in a press release. “We wanted to know just how prevalent and how harmful willful ignorance is — as well as why people engage in it.”
In order to find out, Vu and her team used the findings of 22 research studies involving over 6500 participants for its meta-analysis — a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies.
Willful ignorance gives us a way out. It allows us to maintain a positive self-image even if we’re being selfish or greedy, just because we didn’t know better.
For example, in one of the situations participants had to decide between receiving a smaller $5 reward or one for $6.00. If they chose $5, then an anonymous person or charity would also receive $5.00. But if they picked the bigger reward for $6, then the other recipient would only receive one dollar.
Overall, the study revealed:
- When given an option, 40 percent of participants chose not to learn the consequences of their decisions.
- Willful ignorance led to a 15.6 percentage point drop in altruistic behavior.
- People informed about their action’s consequences were 7 percent more likely to act generously.
So, does that mean we act altruistically as a way to make us feel good about ourselves? The researchers say that’s probably the case, and it’s why willful ignorance gives us a way out. It allows us to maintain a positive self-image even if we’re being selfish or greedy, just because we didn’t know better.
“A part of the reason 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,” Shalvi added.
Willful ignorance led to a 15.6 percentage point drop in altruistic behavior.
Is there a way to tackle self-centered choices? The researchers say they would like to find out by focusing future studies on investigating ways to combat our selfishly-driven decisions.
The study is published in Psychological Bulletin.