“If I close my eyes, nobody will get hurt” – wrong

By Agne Kajackaite

The author was born in Lithuania (at the time of her birth, Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic). While writing this article, she remembers the day 32 years ago when her home country declared its independence from the Soviet Union. An appeal against ignorance.

In 2015, I published a paper titled "If I close my eyes, nobody will get hurt: The effect of ignorance on performance in a real-effort experiment”. I was motivated by examples of willful information avoidance or just general ignorance we all can spot around us. Here are some examples of people willingly avoiding information. For instance, a smoker lights up a cigarette in a bar without asking the person sitting next to him whether it disturbs him, assuming it does not. Or say you suspect your favorite restaurant launders money; however, you do not want to know.

When it comes to ignorance in organizations, a number of examples of willful – and mostly profitable – ignorance are available: starting with hip students who work at Apple stores and do not read about the working conditions in Apple factories; investment bankers who use instruments they do not understand in detail; doctors prescribing their patients drugs that pharmacy companies lobbied them to prescribe instead of thinking about better but less profitable alternatives; employees in marketing departments of tobacco companies avoiding thinking about the danger of their product; or huge corporate scandals as in Watergate or Enron; ending up with one of the largest American drug makers Merck producing a painkiller which increased risk of heart attacks, however, the company claimed not to know about the side effect and refused to redraw the drug from the market for a while.

In my experiment on ignorance, I tested whether choosing to stay ignorant about the negative consequences of one’s own actions affects performance in a real-effort experiment. In the experiment, participants’ effort increased only their own payoff or also the donation to a negatively perceived charity. I introduced ignorance by letting people decide whether to learn if the effort benefits the negative charity. As expected, participants exerted significantly higher efforts if they knew the negatively perceived charity would receive no benefits. Yet, when given the choice, almost one-third of the participants chose to stay ignorant and exert significantly more effort than people who knew their effort would benefit the charity. Just let me stress this again – 1/3rd of people decided to stay ignorant and in the aftermath of their decision to stay ignorant, they behaved selfishly. 1/3rd of people is a lot of people.

Why am I talking about this now? The paper was published in 2015 after all. Well, ignorance is something we can also observe today and it comes with a huge cost. We can selfishly try to focus on ourselves and ignore the news. We can choose to be mindful … and likely selfish. The war is not that far. It is less than 1.000 km away from Berlin. But still influencers are living their best life on social media and people are enjoying a fancy lifestyle, while Ukrainian mothers and their children flee their land with no money and five belongings. Literally. Marching on a sunny Sunday to the Brandenburger Tor with a piece sign in one’s hands is nice. But it is far from enough. Giving up ignorance will cost one a lot in the short term, but that price needs to be paid.

Today, when I am writing this article, is a special day for me. Thirty-two years ago today, my home country Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. This is the most symbolic Independence Day I have ever experienced in my life. My country is free, while Ukraine is fighting the same “savior” we had the “luck” to be “saved” by for decades.

I am a scientist and I might be to believed to be rational. Well, today emotions take over. My heart is broken. “If I close my eyes, nobody will get hurt.” Let me rephrase it – “If we close our eyes, more people will get hurt”.