Wilful Ignorance: Pretending Not to Know

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Three wise monkeys.

There is a Japanese proverb about three monkeys; one covers its eyes and sees no evil, one covers its ears and hears no evil, and one covers its mouth and speaks no evil.

There is a high-profile court case ongoing in the US, in which the CEO and Vice-Presidents of the company claim they didn’t know of any impropriety in their company, because they trusted their accountants. Wilful ignorance means not looking and avoiding information about the consequences of one’s actions for personal gain.

A recent meta-analysis of studies about wilful ignorance in the Psychological Bulletin, showed 40% of study participants avoided looking at easily available information about their actions, which, if they did, could have made them act more unselfishly towards others. It means selfish people deliberately avoid information to maintain their self-image, and maintaining self-image influences their behavior.

The authors speculate wilful ignorance protects one against accusations of acting selfishly, which can then be plausibly denied; “I didn’t know that would happen”. It also means a lot of altruistic behavior is based on others’ expectations of us, and driven by maintaining our self and social images.

Because their approach, in line with all current social research, is mechanistic, they stop there, but there is another angle; the enormously complex social interactions and interactions causing the dynamic they identified.

Edgar Singer described something he called multiple factor circular causality, which implies there are many interacting parts within complex phenomena, and what we call wilful ignorance, in this example, emerges from those parts and their interactions. It means all parts and interactions contribute to the outcome, no matter how small, if you rearrange or remove parts and interactions, the outcome changes, the same parts and interactions can result in different outcomes, differently arranged parts and interactions to a similar one, and, other than creating a snapshot in time, whatever emerges is constantly on the move and changing.

One of the interesting implications of the study is most people act altruistically. Taking a step back, it means most people are fundamentally cooperative, as opposed to being competitive (which is venerated in North America; second place is first loser).

If you cycle back to Singer’s model, you now have a predator and prey type interaction; cooperation versus competition, or altruism versus selfishness. To find out what maintains some sort of equilibrium to that, one must dive deep to see what lurks in the depths, and what lurks is something like this.

We develop a personal sense of “self” from the interplay between our biological bodies and the social world into which they are born. As group animals, we develop a shared social identity from interacting with each other, which modifies the personal self, hence, what we call a “self” contains both nature and nurture, and constantly evolves as we interact with others.

Social roles, which we rank socially, develop in response to cooperation, and we assign a social status to the rank, from which hierarchies grow. Associated with social status and rank is power hierarchies resulting in domination and submission.

The point of all this is to move up in rank and status and prevent us from sliding down, we manage our sense of self and identity to signal not only what we think we are worth, but also dominance and submission. We constantly show face and save face, which means wilful ignorance may indeed be a face-saving strategy.

What this all also means is, unlike research of the kind above, we are neither biologically nor socially precisely the same. All social research is based on generalizing humans into a single template of sameness. In truth, we are all situated on scales of social status and rank, depending on a context; in some we rank higher, in others lower, hence we don’t behave in just one way, it also depends on a context. We cooperate and compete to difference degrees, depending on context, and are altruistic and selfish to various degrees, depending on a context.

The context creates the conditions for the behavior. In a social world, contexts emerge not only from our interactions and interrelationships, in Singer’s terms, but also, in the manner of complex adaptive systems, contain the simple social code regulating those interactions and interrelationships. We use this culturally dependent hidden code unconsciously, which details how we are expected to act, depending on the rank and status we have, how to show dominance and submission, etc.

There is a darker side to all this. Belonging to groups creates dilemmas, as Smith and Berg pointed out, and one way to manage that is creating formal bureaucracies, in which authority, power, and control over resources is prescribed. In prestige-based social hierarchies on the other hand, social power is regulated by dialogue, negotiation, and compromise, but given the skewed power dynamics in bureaucracies, that balance is missing, and intimidation, coercion, and symbolic violence more likely to occur. In the one, continued cooperation is negotiated, in the other regulated and mandated. In the one you cannot hide behind wilful ignorance, in the other you do so by default.

One of the pervasive misunderstandings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, is evolution evolves progressively towards a better or higher-level outcome. What it really says is one of a variety of options is more likely to succeed in a specific context, at the expense of other less viable ones. The fact a mechanistic machine-like way of thinking prevailed since the Enlightenment doesn’t mean it is the only way or best way to think about reality, or that it inexorably leads to progress. On the contrary, like an unwanted drug side-effect, it dehumanizes our societies and what it means being human. Denying that is wilful ignorance, and that is a fact. Closing one’s eyes to not see it, blocking one’s ears to not hear that, and not speaking about it doesn’t make that go away.

As it turns out, we all are potentially and at times willfully ignorant, which has consequences for others. After all, we are human, all too human. But once you become conscious of that, you can no longer cover your eyes and plausibly deny it when we are.