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Ignorance as an excuse

Despite unequivocal scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, many people are skeptical that climate change is man-made, or even real. For instance, lawmakers in North-Carolina passed a bill requiring local planning agencies’ to ignore the latest climate science to predict sea level rise in several coastal counties, while the Energy Department’s climate office bans the use of the words climate change.

They say that ignorance is bliss, but why would we not want to know useful information? One important reason is that knowledge can be threatening if it pits our selfish impulses against a greater social good. This is because our actions are a window through which we can observe and judge ourselves. Armed with a complete picture of the consequences of our actions, we might have to trade off liking what we see with getting what we want. Ignorance, on the other hand, provides a nice excuse to avoid such conflict. As a case in point, people report the “fear of being a bad person” as a reason to avoid knowing about difficult tradeoffs associated with climate change.

The usefulness of ignorance turns up not only in the context of climate change, but anytime we suspect there might be a conflict between our selfish impulses and a broader social benefit. We suspect that there are drawbacks to the consumption of cheap meat for the environment and animal welfare, but because we like to eat meat and do not want to pay too much, we look the other way. The financial crisis of 2008 was partly the result of similar tendencies. The movie The Big Short (2016) shows how bankers and investors happily avoided deeper investigation of dodgy mortgages in order to benefit from their trades, while consumers were eager to sign contracts that were too good to be true.

Willful ignorance in the lab

Evidence from the laboratory provides further proof that financial incentives may lead to “willful ignorance.” An experiment by Dana, Weber, and Kuang (2007) illustrated the stark contrast between how we behave when we are well informed about the consequences of our actions and how we behave when the link between action and consequences is less clear, as well as our willingness to avoid opportunities to become better informed.

A participant (shown in blue in the figure below) had to divide money between himself and another passive participant (in red). In the situation on the left, the choice is simple: Option A provides both participants with more money than option B. In the situation on the right, the choice harder: Option B is fairer, but requires the blue player to sacrifice a dollar. If subjects were simply told that they were in this situation, about three quarters of the blue players chose to make that sacrifice.

Figure: Schematic representation of the experiment by Jason Dana and co-authors by Zachary Grossman and Joël J. van der Weele . Used with permission.

The crux of the experiment came in a different condition, in which the investigators did not tell subjects which situation they were in. However, the BLUE player was told that she could find out with a mouse click on the “Reveal Game” button. An easy choice one would think, since when fully informed, a large majority of participants made different choices in the two situations. But not so: almost half of the participants remained ignorant, and then chose the option best for themselves (A), with predictably bad consequences for the red participant. The experiment thus shows that although some people would use the information if was given to them, they decided not to acquire it of their own accord, even though it was free.

 People are not only imperfectly informed, but also choose their information in a way that best manages their image.

The self-image value of ignorance

But how can ignorance be valid as an excuse when it was chosen deliberately? Willful ignorance is generally considered to be an act of bad faith. In a recent publication, we used an analysis based on a so-called signaling model, to show that opting for ignorance certainly does not send a particularly good signal about yourself. However, the ignorant can plausibly maintain that they would have done the right thing, if only they had known the consequences of their actions. Indeed, as the experiment demonstrates, some people would act pro-socially with full knowledge of the bad consequences if they had information.

The usual analysis of signaling considers interaction between people. However, in this experiment, there was no external audience present to observe whether or not the blue player was informed. Instead, willful ignorance demonstrates the value people place on the image they have of themselves, and the excuse serves to ease one’s own conscience. One way to think about this is that we try to impress a future version of ourselves, and soften its judgment of our own past choices.

Testing the self-image value of ignorance

To test self-image maintenance as the source of ignorance, we did some follow-up experiments. We first replicated the original results, and found an ignorance rate of about 60%. We then tested whether people indeed ascribe actual value to ignorance, by attaching a small monetary reward to the “Reveal Game” button. We found that even in this condition, 46% of our participants remained ignorant. In other words, they were willing to pay to know less.

In another condition, we forced people to show their true colors, so that ignorance could no longer serve the purpose of obfuscating their true preferences. To do so, we asked a group of participants to make a choice for both situations in the experiment. Only then could they press the “Reveal Game” button. Although in this condition information was entirely useless, more than three quarters of participants now pressed the button. In other words, people wanted more information about the choices they had already made, than the choices they had yet to make, a sharp contrast with standard economic theories of rational choice.

All of this paints a rather bleak picture of humanity. To protect our self-image, we leave unwelcome information about the victims of our actions under the carpet. People are not only imperfectly informed, but also choose their information in a way that best manages their image. This helps explain why it is so difficult to wean ourselves off our nasty habits such as the consumption of fossil fuels, cheap meat, and risky mortgages, and why issues like climate change become so polarized. Just establishing a scientific fact is one thing. To make these facts matter, scientists and policy makers will have to grapple with the realities of human psychology.

Featured image credit: three wise monkeys by Robphoto. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Greg Gauthier

    “…the latest climate science to predict sea level rise in several coastal counties…”

    And, how accurate and useful have those specific predictions been up to now? Perhaps, in this situation, it’s a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Ignoring these particular predictions doesn’t necessarily constitute overall “climate change denial” (whatever that means).

    “…the Energy Department’s climate office bans the use of the words climate change…”

    The Trump administration, and its internal attitudes, is a different question altogether. Politics at the national level is a complex mess fraught with fear and ignorance on a number of levels. Climate science is just one slice of an overall menu of options used to frighten, bully, and manipulate people into responding in ways they think will protect themselves.

    “…knowledge can be threatening if it pits our selfish impulses against a greater social good…”

    Sure. But it could also be the case that it’s not knowledge (as in the example of North Carolina). Or, it could be a case of a larger dispute over what exactly the “greater social good” is, within which things like science gets used as a bludgeon, by both sides of the argument.

    And that’s really the center of this question. For almost three centuries now, there has been this vacuous notion of the “greater good”, into which powerful people have poured their own projections, preferences, and desires into, and from which they’ve bullied, shamed, terrified and manipulated the ruled into all sorts of self-destructive plans, programs, and designs. Is it really all that shocking, that the ruled are not so comfortable with that anymore?

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