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Sunday, November 12, 2023

Ignorance by Choice: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Underlying Motives of Willful Ignorance and Its Consequences

Vu, L., Soraperra, I., Leib, M., et al. (2023).
Psychological Bulletin, 149(9-10), 611–635.


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.

Public Significance Statement

We present the first meta-analysis on willful ignorance—when individuals avoid information about the negative consequences of their actions to maximize personal outcomes—covering 33,603 decisions made by 6,531 participants across 56 treatment effects. Results demonstrate that the ability to avoid such information decreases altruistic behavior, and that seemingly altruistic behavior may not reflect a true concern for others.

Key findings of the meta-analysis include:

Prevalence of Willful Ignorance: Approximately 40% of participants in the analyzed studies chose to avoid learning about the negative impact of their actions on others.

Impact on Altruism: Willful ignorance significantly reduces altruistic behavior. When provided with information about the consequences of their actions, participants were 15.6 percentage points more likely to engage in altruistic acts compared to those who chose to remain ignorant.

Motives for Willful Ignorance: The study suggests that willful ignorance may serve as a self-protective mechanism to maintain a positive self-image. By avoiding information about the harm caused by their actions, individuals can protect their self-perception as moral and ethical beings.