Deliberate ignorance: choosing not to know

Intentionally foregoing information can be a good decision for both individuals and society

Sometimes ignorance can be a virtue. A well-known example is double blind studies in medicine, in which neither the participants nor the medical professionals know which individuals belong to the experimental or control group. Such a scenario ensures that a placebo effect can be ruled out. Nevertheless, to date, little attention has been paid to the phenomenon of "deliberate ignorance" - the conscious choice not to seek or use information. Two Max Planck directors have now shed more light onto this subject, and researchers from various disciplines are increasingly becoming interested in this approach.

When James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA structure, had his own genome sequenced in 2007, there was one piece of information he dediced not to seek out: whether he possessed a specific genetic risk factor associated with a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease. This example is used at the beginning of the essay “Homo Ignorans: Deliberately Choosing not to Know", published in 2016 by Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and his colleague Christoph Engel of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods. The psychologist and the legal scholar focused on the phenomenon of deliberate ignorance, which had received little attention until then. In the past few years, scientists from many other disciplines – ranging from history, political science, and economics to sociology and philosophy to biology, medicine, and computer science – have decided to investigate this phenomenon more closely.

The surprising thing about deliberate ignorance is that in western societies, the acquisition and creation of new knowledge is a cornerstone of the culture, economy, and way of life. There have to be compelling reasons to intentionally choose not to know. The case of James Watson and his possible predisposition to Alzheimer’s is a good example. The information would have been of little use to Watson because there is still no effective treatment for the disease. However, had he found out that he was at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s, it would have likely put him under psychological strain. In his estimation, the disadvantages outweighed any benefits.

Weighing costs and effort

In many cases where deliberate ignorance is chosen, the choice can be seen as weighing the costs (i.e. the effort it takes to obtain information) against the possible benefits and disadvantages. For James Watson, the costs did not matter; he had his genome sequenced anyway. In other cases, especially when it comes to medical diagnostics, costs are definitely an argument. It is now theoretically possible for anyone to have their genome analysed. However, because this is still relatively expensive, most experts recommend doing so only if there is a strong suspicion of a hereditary predisposition to a disease.

The costs include not only the money required but also the effort to obtain information. Many people do not take advantage of medical check-ups – even though they are covered by health insurance. They may feel it is too much effort to look for a doctor, make an appointment, and sit in the waiting room. They may also fear a negative outcome of the diagnosis.

The question of when the benefit of the information comes into play can also play a role. If the knowledge is relevant only in the distant future, it is more likely to be ignored – for example, in the case of pension entitlements in the distant future.

Deciding not to know as a group decision

Not only individuals, but also groups can consciously decide not to be provided with information. After all, information rarely concerns just one person. A predisposition to Alzheimer’s puts strain not only on the person who is diagnosed, but also on their partners, families, and friends. The decision whether to find out this information is often made jointly. Expectant parents usually decide together whether they want to have their child tested for trisomy 21.

Larger organizations such as companies, authorities, and associations also practice deliberate ignorance. A frequently cited example is professional orchestras. It has now become common practice to fill vacant spots using a process that deliberately disguises the gender and appearance of applicants. Those invited to an audition perform behind a curtain so that the selection committee initially makes a selection based only of the quality of the musical performance. As a result, many more women are accepted into orchestras than in the past.

Deliberate ignorance can thus counteract discrimination against disadvantaged groups – a goal that is increasingly desired by society and prescribed by law. Deliberately omitting such information is an ethical decision. It determines which knowledge is considered useful and valuable for society in general and which is considered harmful to a fair and solidary coexistence. This is by no means a new development. Since the Middle Ages, Justitia, the symbolic figure of jurisprudence, has been depicted with a blindfold – as a symbol of the application of the law independent of the person.

Handling historical facts

Societies also determine what knowledge about a common past is wanted. In Germany, the way historical facts are dealt with has repeatedly changed from the middle of the 20th century until the present. After the end of the Second World War, the Allies were relentless in their efforts to clarify the situation and bring the Nazi elite to justice. However, this was followed by a phase of suppression and silence in the 1950s and 1960s. From today’s perspective, it can be assumed that this way of dealing with a harrowing past was considered necessary in order to manage the cohesion of society and the joint reconstruction of the country. The participants of the German student movement fought for an end to silence and repression and demanded a real confrontation with the crimes of the Nazi dictatorship. The deliberate ignorance was followed by a deliberate reappraisal of crimes. Similar phases of enlightenment and deliberate ignorance can be seen after the end of the GDR.

Deliberate ignorance is thus a multifaceted phenomenon that affects numerous scientific fields. Psychological approaches and legal aspects play a role in almost all areas. The consequences of medical diagnoses are a matter for medical ethicists. Dealing with financial provision or wage transparency is a matter for economists, while avoiding discrimination is a matter for sociologists, political scientist, and computer scientists (the latter in order to avoid algorithms that use discriminatory stereotypes). Finally, coming to terms with the past is a matter for historians.

An interesting insight into the broad field of deliberate ignorance is given in “Deliberate Ignorance. Choosing not to Know”, which Hertwig and Engel recently published in the Strüngmann Forum Reports series. It goes to show that there are still many interesting and unanswered questions in the field of deliberate ignorance.

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