Deliberate Ignorance and Moral Wiggle Room

You would think that rational human beings would gather all easily-acquired information that is relevant to a decision before they make that decision. Not so. Rather, people often prefer deliberate ignorance, defined by scholars Brown and Walasek as “the conscious individual or collective choice not to seek or use information in a situation where the marginal acquisition costs are negligible and the (individual or social) benefits are potentially large.”

For example, people with a family history of an untreatable, fatal, hereditary disease might choose not to take a test that would confirm, one way or the other, whether they have the malady. Because the condition is incurable, they may believe that they will be happier not knowing whether they will eventually succumb to the disease.

This understudied phenomenon of deliberate ignorance is the subject of a fascinating new book, Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (edited by Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel).

Importantly for our purposes, the deliberate ignorance phenomenon has significant moral implications.

A man who has vague recollections of acting inappropriately with a subordinate in a drunken stupor at last night’s party may choose to pretend the whole thing didn’t happen. Parents who come across evidence that their child might have committed a crime may choose to investigate no further, fearing what they might find and its consequences. Or, people who suspect they’ve been exposed to an STD may choose not to be tested because confirmation might make them feel that they should warn potential sexual partners, which they do not wish to do.

A CEO who suspects that the firm’s CFO has fudged the numbers so that the company could pretend that it met earnings targets and thereby avoid a hit to its stock price might choose, in order to maintain plausible deniability, to investigate no further. Citizens who support a politician accused of major wrongdoing may choose to watch only the television networks they are confident will relentlessly take the politician’s side.

If you suspect that your lifestyle is having a negative impact on the environment, you may choose to remain ignorant of the science of climate change.  In so doing you, may maintain what psychologists have labeled “moral wiggle room.” This enables you to continue to live your life as you choose while still thinking of yourself as a good person.

Studies show:

  • consumers often choose not to investigate whether the clothes they wish to buy are made with child labor
  • people often avoid information about a refugee crisis so that they do not have to feel guilty about their failure to do something about it
  • on a hot day, people will take more actions to avoid knowing the impact of air conditioning usage on the environment than they will on cooler days.

A politician who has taken the public position that COVID-19 is a hoax but now suspects she has been exposed to it, may chose to avoid being tested so as to avoid a public relations nightmare. Supporters of the Second Amendment did lobby to cut off federal funding for research into gun violence for fear of what that research might uncover.

Although in certain circumstances, choosing deliberate ignorance may be beneficial—as when scientists run double-blind experiments, professors anonymize exams before grading them, or employers remain deliberately ignorant of the race or gender of job candidates so as to eliminate bias in hiring—in general those who wish to act morally should guard against choosing not to know the consequences of their actions.

 

Sources:

Sarah Auster & Jason Dana, “Utilizing Strategic Ignorance in Negotiations,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Giovanni d’Adda et al., “It’s So Hot in Here: Information Avoidance, Moral Wiggle Room, and High Air Conditioning Usage,” FEEM Working Paper No. 07.2018, SSRN Electrical Journal, March 26, 2018.

Felix Bierbrauer, “Harry Potter and the Welfare of the Willfully Blinded,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Gordon D.A. Brown & Lukasz Walasek, “Models of Deliberate Ignorance in Individual Choice,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Jason Dana et al., “Exploiting Moral Wiggle Room: Experiments Demonstrating an Illusory Preference for Fairness,” Economic Theory 33: 67-80 (2007).

Kristine Ehrich & Julie Irwin, “Willful Ignorance in the Request for Product Attribute Information,” Journal of Market Research 42: 266-277 (2005).

Eleonora Freddi, “Do People Avoid Morally Relevant Information? Evidence from the Refugee Crisis?, Review of Economics and Statistics (forthcoming).

Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, “Hmo Ignorans: Deliberately Choosing Not to Know,” Perspectives in Psychological Science 11 (359-372 (20160.

Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, “Homo Ignorans: Deliberately Choosing Not to Know,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Christian Hilbe & Laura Schmid, “The Evolution of Deliberate Ignorance in Strategic Interaction,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Joachim Krueger et al., “Normative Implications of Deliberate Ignorance,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Robert J. MacCoun, “Blinding to Remove Biases in Science and Society,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Barry Schwartz et al., “The Deep Structure of Deliberate Ignorance,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

Pete C Trimmer et al., “The Zoo of Models of Deliberate Ignorance,” in Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (Ralph Hertwig & Christopher Engel, eds. 2020).

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