How Wilful Ignorance Can Be So Destructive

Ray Williams
11 min readApr 25, 2024

During these chaotic times, rife with political controversy, extreme tribalism, violence, and social unrest, the question arises of when and how people should speak up against injustice, discrimination, and criminal activity. This question is critical in democratic societies. Choosing to purposefully ignore a problem can be seen as wilful or blind ignorance, with detrimental consequences.

One of the reasons why many people don’t speak up is because of wilful ignorance. They choose to put their heads in the sand because of the discomfort, internal conflict or external price they believe they would pay.

In 2016, a vast audience tuned into a congressional hearing where Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, denied any deliberate misconduct or accountability for the misuse of customer data on his platform, which was used to influence voter behavior in a democratic election. Zuckerberg’s responses during the hearing prompt critical inquiries: Was his professed unawareness reasonable? Should he and his team have been more vigilant and proactive in preventing what became one of history’s most significant political controversies? Was wilful or blind ignorance an adequate defence?

What is Wilful Ignorance?

Wilful ignorance is built on deliberately avoiding evidence that doesn’t match one’s beliefs. This can be a defence mechanism as it allows us to create a safe world akin to confirmation bias.

The concept can be applied to situations in which people intentionally turn their attention away from an ethical problem that is believed to be important by those using the phrase (for instance, because the problem is too disturbing for people to want it dominating their thoughts, or from the knowledge that solving the problem would require extensive effort).

Various psychological studies have now confirmed that there are different situations in which the majority of people would not want to know something to avoid pain, regret, or anxiety. In some cases, people still remain ignorant of something even if they would highly benefit from acquiring that information without apparent material costs. For example, many patients who suffer from chronic diseases avoid getting information about their health even if having such knowledge is free, and it would permit them to cope better, managing their symptoms and therapy.

In law, willful ignorance occurs when a person seeks to avoid civil or criminal liability for a wrongful act by intentionally ignoring facts that would render them liable or implicated.

Why is Donald Trump’s big lie so hard to discredit?

This has been a live question for more than a year, but inside it lies another: Do Republican officials and voters believe Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election by corrupting ballots — the same votes that put so many Republicans in office — and if they do believe it, what are their motives? Many MAGA supporters of Trump are engaged in willful ignorance in that they willfully ignore the facts and truth of the 2020 Presidential election.

Wilful ignorance abounds in daily life. People regularly look the other way rather than examining the consequences of their actions. Despite the massive amount of scientific evidence for climate change and human impact on our environment, for instance, many people still avoid engaging with facts about climate change, according to a study by Kari Marie Norgarard, published in Organization and Environment. People also don’t want to know about the brutal conditions and mistreatment of farm animals raised for food, according to a study by E. Bell and colleagues published by Cambridge University Press. Consumers often put aside ethical concerns about how products are sourced, according to a study by Kristine R. Ehrich and colleagues published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

Willful ignorance is highly prevalent, with 40% of people across the studies choosing to avoid information about how their decisions would affect others when given the option. This wilful ignorance was correlated with acting more selfishly.

Wilful ignorance is also referred to as wilful blindness. Researcher Margaret Heffernan published a book, Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, in which she argues, “How could the Catholic Church not see its abusing priests? How could economists miss the housing bubble? Why do spouses think their adultery won’t hurt anyone? How could mortgagees take on so much debt? The answer to all these questions is the same: wilful blindness. The biggest threats and dangers we face aren’t secret or hidden. They’re the ones we choose to overlook. “ She says, “Human beings turn a blind eye to feel safe, avoid conflict, reduce anxiety, and protect prestige. Financial concerns, oppressive workloads, and information overload also make it hard to see (or admit to ourselves or our colleagues) the issues and problems in plain sight. What we choose to let through and leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.”

The Consequences of Willful Ignorance

Willful ignorance, the intentional avoidance of information about the negative consequences of one’s actions, has detrimental significant implications:

  1. It reduces altruistic behavior. The meta-analysis found that when people chose to remain ignorant about how their decisions would impact others, they were 15.6 percentage points less likely to act altruistically than when the consequences were made clear to them. Ignorance provides an excuse to act more selfishly.
  2. It facilitates unethical behavior in various contexts. Wilful ignorance allows consumers to ignore the problematic origins of products, citizens to avoid acknowledging climate change impacts, and enables corruption in politics and business by providing plausible deniability.
  3. It undermines truly altruistic motivations. The analysis suggests that much of the altruistic behavior observed is driven not by genuine concern for others but by societal pressures and a desire to maintain a positive self-image. When people can remain ignorant, they use it as an “easy way out” to avoid the costs of being altruistic.
  4. It erodes moral character: By repeatedly choosing ignorance to justify selfish behavior, individuals can develop a habit of moral disengagement. This can lead to a gradual decay of their ethical principles and integrity over time.
  5. It impairs decision-making: Wilfully ignoring relevant information results in decisions based on incomplete data, which can have negative personal consequences (e.g., financial, health, relationships) in the long run.
  6. It diminishes self-awareness: Avoiding uncomfortable truths prevents personal growth and self-reflection, hindering an individual’s ability to align their actions with their values authentically.
  7. It perpetuates unethical practices: When people choose ignorance about the negative impacts of their choices (e.g., on the environment, and human rights), it enables businesses and governments to continue harmful practices.
  8. It erodes public trust: When exposed, leaders’ and institutions’ willful ignorance damages public faith in them and undermines social cohesion.
  9. It inhibits social progress: Ignorance about critical issues like climate change, injustice, or inequality prevents the recognition of problems and impedes efforts to address them through collective action.
  10. It normalizes selfishness: Widespread willful ignorance driven by self-interest can shape social norms, making unethical behavior more acceptable and commonplace. In essence, wilful ignorance is corrosive at both the individual and societal level — it compromises personal integrity while enabling harmful practices that undermine ethical conduct, accountability and positive change.

Examples of Wilful Ignorance and Their Consequences

Climate Change: Ignoring the facts about climate change is harmful both to individuals and society as a whole:

  1. It encourages inaction: When people overlook the scientific facts about climate change, they allow harmful behaviors and policies to continue, making the problem worse.
  2. It hinders our ability to handle climate risks: Ignoring climate data stops people, communities, and governments from making smart choices to lessen risks and increase resilience against issues like extreme weather and rising sea levels.
  3. It damages public trust: When leaders dismiss climate change despite strong scientific agreement, it weakens people’s trust in institutions and their ability to effectively tackle this urgent issue.
  4. It blocks innovation: Not paying attention to climate issues discourages the development and adoption of clean technologies and sustainable practices that are necessary for a greener future.
  5. It affects ethical decision-making: Studies suggest that ignoring climate change facts is often driven by a desire to protect one’s self-image while acting selfishly, which harms others who suffer the most from climate effects.

In short, ignoring the reality of climate change continues the very behaviors that worsen the crisis, while stopping the social, political, and technological solutions needed to address it. Addressing this issue is key for effective action against climate change.

Politics and Government: Ignoring important information can also damage politics and governance in many ways:

  1. It allows unethical behavior: By avoiding facts about the negative outcomes of their decisions, politicians and officials can claim ignorance and avoid responsibility for unethical actions.
  2. It hinders informed policymaking: When policymakers ignore expert opinions and data on crucial issues like climate change or public health, it leads to policies that are ineffective and detached from reality.
  3. It undermines trust in institutions: Willful ignorance by leaders, especially when evidence is clear, deeply harms public trust in government, leading to cynicism and division among people.
  4. It prevents solving social issues: Ignoring difficult truths about things like inequality or environmental harm stops recognizing these issues and blocks efforts to solve them through reforms.
  5. It promotes misinformation: Politicians who disregard facts pave the way for misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread, which further distorts public discussions.

Ultimately, ignoring crucial facts in politics goes against everything needed for transparent, accountable, and ethical governance. Addressing this issue is essential for rebuilding public trust and effectively addressing complex societal challenges.

Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Nazi’s Crimes Against Humanity

Having lost faith in the ability of democratic institutions to improve their lives, many Germans went along when the Nazis suspended the constitution, replaced the German republic with a dictatorship, and allowed Hitler alone to become the highest law of the land. In exchange for a loss of individual rights and freedoms, they hoped that Hitler would improve the economy, put an end to the Communist threat, and make Germany a powerful and proud nation again.

Beliefs that Jews were a dangerous threat were spread through propaganda that pervaded daily life: radio, schools, police, military, and Hitler Youth training, and all forms of popular culture.

While the Nazi leadership led the way in creating their racist ideology, the anti-Jewish laws and propaganda were implemented and bound into law by those working for the Civil Service . Those who continued to work in the Civil Service following the Nazi rise to power therefore directly contributed to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.

Immediately following the Second World War, a rumour was spread that the Wehrmacht (German armed forces in WWII) were “clean” and did not participate with the Nazis in any of their genocidal actions. The Wehrmacht, so the myth claimed, only took part in normal wartime activities and as such could not be found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

This myth was relatively popular in Germany until an exhibition appeared in Hamburg in 1995 entitled War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944. The exhibition showed the extent of the Wehrmacht complicity and collaboration.

Wilhelm Röpke, professor of economics at the University of Marburg, one of Germany’s oldest, until his dismissal in the spring of 1933, agreed with Mann’s accusation. He wrote that “it was precisely the university professors that failed when the need came for the courageous defence of the ultimate values of our civilization.” Their inaction was fatal because “it resulted in the crippling of the conscience of the German nation.”

In the last years of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazis continued to gain electoral strength, some academics and professionals were uneasy with Hitler and the Nazis. Still, they thought that exerting political influence would damage the integrity of their profession. So, they chose to look the other way in the face of atrocities. They chose wilful ignorance.

Has time changed wilful ignorance? The evidence reports that it hasn’t. The Guardian and Observer reported “ “One in 20 Britons does not believe the Holocaust took place.” One in 10 young Americans believes that the Holocaust never happened, while 23 per cent think it’s a myth or that the number of those killed has been exaggerated. In a 50-state survey of Americans aged between 18 and 39, 12 per cent said they had never heard, or thought they had never heard, the word “Holocaust” before.


Various reports indicate that between 13,000 and 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza, the vast majority of whom are civilians. “Six months into the war, 10,000 Palestinian women in Gaza have been killed, among them an estimated 6,000 mothers, leaving 19,000 children orphaned,” said UN Women, in a new report, “one child is injured or dies every 10 minutes.” “More than one million women and girls in Gaza have almost no food, no access to safe water, latrines, washrooms, or sanitary pads, with disease growing amidst inhumane living conditions.”

About 75 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has been displaced. Some 400,000 people are enduring famine because of the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza and the severe restrictions on humanitarian aid that have deprived civilians of what they need to survive.

There are “reasonable grounds” to believe Israel is “committing the crime of genocide against the Palestinians as a group in Gaza,” the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories has said.

Francesca Albanese made the remarks Wednesday after submitting her latest report called “Anatomy of a Genocide” to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel to take action to prevent acts of genocide as it wages war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

And yet, aside from President Joe Biden’s seemingly off-the-cuff warning last December about the reputational risk Israel ran by carrying out “indiscriminate bombing,” U.S. officials have avoided stating that any particular Israeli actions in Gaza were unacceptable. When journalists have asked U.S. officials direct questions about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, they have equivocated. Notably lacking from these official statements and many others like them was any affirmative declaration that Israel was abiding by international law. If U.S. officials believed that Israel was doing so — or at least taking every possible measure to avoid harming civilians under difficult circumstances — they would eagerly say as much.

Section 502B of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act requires the State Department to ensure that U.S. security assistance does not abet gross human rights violations. The so-called Leahy Laws, enacted decades ago by Congress, prohibit US military aid from going to specific units committing gross human rights violations. Despite their law and regulation, the U.S. needs to pay attention to them when it comes to Israel.

State Department lawyers and atrocity crime experts in the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice are often called on to assess violations of international law in conflicts. Under Secretary of State Blinken, that office and the department’s legal team have reviewed evidence and made official proclamations about violations of international law by the governments of China, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Sudan. But there is no publicly available evidence that the GCJ or any other office has been asked to make determinations about Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

As the US continues to support Israel’s war in Gaza, new polling shows that half of President Joe Biden’s coalition views that war as constituting a genocide.

50% of voters who voted for Biden in 2020 think that Israel is “committing genocide against Palestinian civilians, according to polling from YouGov and The Economist conducted from January 21–23 that surveyed 1,664 US adult citizens.

So, not all Americans are exercising wilful ignorance when it comes to Israel and Gaza, but it appears that the Biden administration is doing so willingly.

Concluding Comments

Democracies cannot survive if wilful and blind ignorance is rampant among the population, and in particular, among a country’s political leaders. Americans (because the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world) need to ask themselves, what’s the price they pay for willful and blind ignorance about climate change, the erosion of their democracy, the rise of fascist authoritarianism, economic inequality, racism, rising militarism and forever wars?



Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others