Willful Ignorance Often Comes From Selfishness

willful ignorance

A recent study has found that 40% of people will choose ignorance over knowing how their actions will affect others, frequently as a justification for acting selfishly.

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

Truth or Consequences

Vu and her associates conducted a meta-analysis of 22 research studies having a total of 6,531 participants. The research studies were exclusively carried out in laboratory settings or through online platforms.

The majority of the participants adhered to a protocol whereby certain individuals were informed of the repercussions of their actions, while others had the option 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.

While one group of participants was informed of the consequences immediately after making their decision, another group was given the opportunity to learn about them at their discretion.

Less Altrusim is More

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 postulated that an explanation for willful ignorance could be that some individuals engage in altruistic behavior in order to preserve the positive self-image associated with being altruistic. Willful ignorance can then enable them to maintain that self-perception without the obligation to perform altruistic acts.

According to Shaul Shalvi, PhD, a behavioral ethics professor at the University of Amsterdam and co-author of the study, the meta-analysis supported that. This is due to the fact that participants who opted to learn the consequences of their actions were 7 percentage points more likely to be charitable than those who received 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.

Motivations and Aspirations

Although, when thoroughly informed of the repercussions of their actions, the majority of individuals are willing to do the right thing, this willingness is not always motivated by concern for others.

Stakeholder motivations and the aspiration to present a positive self-image are contributing factors to individuals’ altruistic behavior. Being righteous frequently requires individuals to invest their time, money, and effort; therefore, ignorance provides a simple 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.


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.

  1. Vu, L., Soraperra, I., Leib, M., van der Weele, J., & Shalvi, S. (2023). Ignorance by choice: A meta-analytic review of the underlying motives of willful ignorance and its consequences. Psychological Bulletin, 149(9-10), 611–635. doi:10.1037/bul0000398