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Willful Ignorance Encourages Selfishness

Approach Helps Many Skip Guilt

Willful Ignorance Encourages Selfishness

By John Salak –

Ignorance may just be bliss, at least when it comes to how a person’s actions impact others. It appears this approach to not knowing is pretty popular as perhaps 40 percent of people actually prefer not to know how their actions might impact others in order to have an excuse to act selfishly.

Whether this type of willful ignorance can be considered beneficial is debatable. However, there is certainly a fair amount of support for the notion that ignorance in general has its psychological advantages. Not knowing certain things can reduce anxiety and stress, increase happiness and contentment, simplify the decision-making process, strengthen relationships and communication, encourage curiosity and learning and foster open-mindedness and tolerance, according to Aura Health.

A more recent study out of the University of Amsterdam had another take on ignorance, the willful kind. It allows people to act selfishly without guilt.

“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 Dutch team uncovered the significant preference for willful ignorance after conducting a meta-analysis of 22 research studies that involved more than 6,500 participants. The studies all involved having some participants being told the consequences of their actions, while others could choose whether to learn the consequences or not.

When all the studies were grouped, researchers found 40 percent of people chose not to learn the consequences of their actions if possible. This willful ignorance was correlated with less altruism. In contrast, participants were more than 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.

One possible reason for willful ignorance might be that some people behave altruistically because they want to maintain a positive self-image of being a selfless person, the study speculated.  

The meta-analysis involved supported this notion. People who chose to learn the consequences of their actions were 7 percentage points more likely to be generous compared with participants who were given information by default, reported the study co-author Shaul Shalvi, Ph.D., a professor at the Dutch university.

“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.”





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