Willful Ignorance: A Human Behavior

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Our behavior seems to be built by evolution, and it's sometimes paradoxical. To borrow from the hard sciences, our behavior exhibits complementarity. We are largely felicitous to our family and friends, yet stand-offish (if not aggressive) to “others” we may encounter. Willful ignorance straddles that complementarity borderline. A new study offers insight into what's really going on.

“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.”

To provide a bit of neutral context, often we are willfully ignorant of why our clothes and electronics are so cheap, ignoring the horrific working conditions in mines and factories to save a few bucks (the selfish part) rather than pay a bit more and improve the life of those making the objects (the altruistic part).

The research is a meta-analysis of psychological studies of willful ignorance. We are relieved of the burden of statistical veracity and should treat their findings as painted with, at times, a broad brush.

What is willful ignorance?

In the classic study of willful ignorance, the decision maker, in green, has the option of getting $6, while an anonymous recipient, in orange, gets $1 – a “selfish” choice. Or the decision maker can get $5, as does the unknown recipient – an altruistic choice. When the decision maker has complete knowledge of the reward for both themselves and the anonymous recipient, studies, in the aggregate, show 74% choosing the altruistic alternative and providing an even split. The remaining 26% of individuals, “the selfish,” take more for themselves. 


When information about the reward to the unknown other is hidden from the decision maker, the situation is more complex. The decision maker is still left with the same two choices: take $6 or $5, but they do not know what the anonymous recipient will get. They are told there is a 50-50 chance that the recipient will receive an equal or smaller amount.

In the test setting, the decision maker is given one additional choice: they could get information on how their take would impact that of the recipient – they would be fully informed. At this juncture, willful ignorance enters the picture; do they ask for additional information? 44% of the decision-makers asked no further questions and took the $6. That is an 18% increase in selfish behavior in the presence of willful ignorance compared to complete knowledge.

What is driving this paradoxical behavior?

Why we behave this way was the subject of all the reviewed studies and the meta-analysis. [1] The authors looked at two prominent theories.

  • For some individuals, their social appearance is a priority, and willful ignorance is an excuse that allows them to be less altruistic and maintain their self-image – they just were “not aware” they are still virtuous members of their tribe.
  • Other individuals may exhibit “cognitive inattentiveness: The idea is people are simply lazy, inattentive, or confused and may be averse to processing additional information.” We see this a great deal in social media, where we reflexively retweet, like, or repost without ever considering the underlying veracity. [2]

“It depends.”

The context in which we make these choices can alter our behavior. To understand how “it depends,” the researchers looked at several typical situations.

  • Larger discrepancies in payout in favor of the decision maker may be too tempting, reducing altruism, or they may be too morally concerning, inflicting harm on the recipient increasing altruism.
  • Who the recipient is may impact altruism; we are more likely to be fair with our peers than with faceless “others,” like those outside our tribe or institutions or charities.
  • Information costs – not all information is free or easily acquired. The cost to gain hidden knowledge might impact our altruism; it might not “be worth it” in time or money.
  • When faced with repetitive decision-making – “initial ethical behavior may provide a “license” for later unethical behavior.” We see this in individuals ordering salads in fast food restaurants; the low-calorie salad is the license for the high-calorie Big Mac.
  • Age and gender may also play a role.

Across the range of studies, there were several common findings.

  • Altruism was greater for those who voluntarily sought additional information, suggesting that self-image, more than cognitive inattention, drives willful ignorance.
  • Temptation of a larger payout reduced altruism, while, as might be expected, moral concerns increased altruism.
  • Repetition reduced altruism; having been altruistic previously might be “similar to ignorance in generating excuse value for participants.”
  • Altruism or selfishness was unaffected by the type of recipient. Because most of this work consisted of laboratory studies, an impact on reputation was absent, which may make this finding of more limited value.  
  • Altruism increases with age, and women are more altruistic than men.

“The aggregate evidence suggests ignorance is indeed in part “willful” and driven by excuse seeking and self-image maintenance motives.”

The meta-analysis does not clarify how these two factors are apportioned for an individual or a context, but both are at play.

Does it matter?

I would argue that, indeed, it does. Understanding our desire for willful ignorance can inform many of our decisions, including those in the political and commercial spheres and those regarding our health. As a physician, I am responsible for informing my patients so they can make the best decision. When they ignore or dismiss what I say, which is much different than not following my recommendations, they are willfully ignorant. As I look for lessons from our public health failures during the pandemic, I wonder if willful ignorance is not an unheralded factor.

One of the stronger arguments surrounding masks, lockdowns, and vaccination had to do with protecting others – an altruistic behavior. The meta-analysis finds that altruism thrives, but not completely, in transparency. Was our public health messaging fully transparent, or was it subject to willful ignorance because, for some, “information is easy to avoid” - especially when it challenges your identity? Might this explain the political divide we saw with vaccination that continues to bedevil our politics?


[1] The literature review included 22 studies involving 56 treatment effects and 33,603 decisions made by 6,531 participants. All the studies were in “WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.”

[2] The researchers sought to separate the two motivations by assuming that “participants who voluntarily acquire information in the hidden information treatment should act, on average, more altruistically than participants who are involuntarily informed …in the full information treatment, despite having the same information.” They described this as sorting. Those with cognitive inattentiveness would be expected to pursue an altruistic course equally.


Source: Ignorance by Choice: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Underlying Motives of Willful Ignorance and Its Consequences Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000398