Rational ignorance: what it is and how it can help us

Decision-making could be thought of as a psychological ability that allows people to choose the most appropriate option from among those available, mentally anticipating the possible long-term consequences of each and anticipating the possible benefits. . a.

However, we do not always take the most beneficial option in the long run and are sometimes guided by mental heuristics as in the case of rational ignorance, which is defined as a term used to refer to situations in which an individual in infers that the costs of acquiring the new knowledge outweigh the benefits of consolidating this new learning.

In this article we will see what the concept of rational ignorance consists of and that is why we will present some everyday examples that can illustrate this, as well as some contexts in which this concept can have an influence.

    What is rational ignorance?

    Rational ignorance is a concept used to refer to situations in which the cost of learning something new outweighs the benefits of consolidating that new learning. In other words, according to this concept, people will choose not to strive to ask for more information on a particular subject if it would entail more costs than benefits; therefore, one would choose to act without having all the information one could ask for in relation to a decision to be made.

    The term rational ignorance may seem paradoxical or contradictory at first glance; however, it is not necessary, because we cannot know everything and we do not have enough time to ask for all the detailed information regarding the multiple options presented to us when making a decision. Therefore, we usually opt for the decision that seems most advantageous to us considering the cost-benefit ratio based on the information available to us at the time.

    This concept of rational ignorance was coined by American economist specializing in institutional and political economics, Anthony Downs in 1957, in his treatise known as The Economic Theory of Democracy; also being the forerunner of rational choice theory, a theoretical framework developed in the fields of political science and economics that is often used to understand and also formally shape the economic and social behavior of people.

    From the perspective of rational choice theory, it is understood that people tend to reduce risk or cost in time, effort and/or money, as well as to maximize their benefit-benefit ratio; in other words, people tend to opt for what they think will bring them more benefit and less for what might lead to unfavorable results in terms of cost. The concept of rational ignorance is also formulated in the sense of this theory.

    The term rational ignorance was used by Anthony Downs primarily in the field of economics; however, this term has also been used in other disciplines related to the study of rationality and human choice, such as psychology, sociology or philosophy, among others.

      Daily examples

      Rational ignorance could be seen as a heuristic way of making decisions on a day-to-day basis and around various issues, even though often the choice made is not the most optimal or the most beneficial in the long run. Therefore, we should look at some everyday examples to better understand this concept.

      1. When deciding on the academic / professional future

      An example of rational ignorance would be that of a student who has just finished high school and decides to stop his studies to find a job as soon as possible and to be able to emancipate himself because he considers studying as a minimum of 4 years older being able to aspire to a job that might be better paid, studying to work on what you think is your vacation, or simply gaining new knowledge that might be valuable and interesting, doesn’t make up for all the money you have to invest and the study hours you need to use to get the degree.

        2. When buying a product

        Another example of rational ignorance would be when a person is shopping at the supermarket and has to decide what type of cereal to choose for breakfast and simply opts for those with less sugar, instead of doing a more in-depth analysis informing on other ingredients and nutrients. they may have, because having less sugar does not mean they are healthier, that the sugars of other cereals that have more content could come from natural sources and at the same time contain other more beneficial components such as fibers .

          3. When you vote for a political party

          It would also be a good example, applying rational ignorance to the realm of politics, the case of that voter who considers that asking for all possible information about all government proposals and plans from all political parties running for election means a high cost in terms of time and effort, he therefore decides to make his decision to vote based on the information he already had about the different political parties, even if it may be minimal.

          Rational ignorance in the case of the election when voting for a political party could also influence whether the voter considers that the vote will not be decisive; that is why he does not consider it useful to invest his time and effort in the detailed analysis of each political party in order to make the decision to vote for the party which best corresponds to his ideas and interests or which, according to he can make his country better.

          As we can see from the examples that we have just explained with reference to the concept of rational ignorance, although it seems paradoxical, these are rational decisions, since the person has weighed the cost-benefits and opted for the decision she considers most optimal and beneficial when making it; although in the long run, if he had invested more effort, he might have opted for another decision that will bring him more benefits.

          Intolerance of uncertainty would also play an important role here, because in all these cases we preferred to choose according to the resources or knowledge we already have about the decision to be made, rather than asking for more information in order to weigh what would be the best decision that could be made.

            Positive and negative aspects of rational ignorance in making decisions

            Using rational ignorance is a benchmark for making decisions that have their benefits in some situations, while in others it can be quite harmful or at least not as beneficial as having invested effort. in choose the most expensive way.

            For example, when deciding which sneakers to buy from a sports store, it might be a good idea to pick sneakers from a brand you’re already familiar with because you’ve had other pairs that you’ve been comfortable with. instead of analyzing various factors of various brands, using the time which he considers very valuable, he could use other activities which he considers more important to analyze various sports brands.

            On the other hand, in the case of opting for your academic and therefore professional future, it may not be the best option to opt for a path with the information you have at that time without reloading all the information. necessary to analyze all available options carefully and so on choose the one that could be the most beneficial in the long term based on your own interests (eg vocation, remuneration, etc.).

            The same as in the previous case when it comes to choosing which foods to buy. And it is that taking a decision out of rational ignorance, although in the short term it may seem advantageous in terms of saving time and/or money, in the long term it could be detrimental in the sense that it would be more health benefits of choosing healthier foods, and for this you should look at other factors, such as the ingredients that different products contain, rather than a single ingredient like sugar or just price.

            Bibliographic references

            • Campbell, A., Converse, P., Miller, W., and Stokes. D. (1960), The American Voter. New York: John Wiley.
            • Downs, A. (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.
            • Martinelli, C. (2006). Would rational voters get expensive information? Journal of Economic Theory, 129 (1), p. 225-251.
            • Martinelli, C. (2007). Rational ignorance and electoral behavior. International Journal of Game Theory, 35, p. 315-335.
            • Nie, NH, Verba, S. & Petrocik, JR (1976), The Changing American Voter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
            • Pérez, AR, & Comeig, IR (1998). Effect of asymmetric information on risk and behavior of mutual guarantee companies: an empirical analysis. Spanish Finance and Accounting Journal, pp. 469-497.
            • Reig, A., & Ramírez, I. (1998). Effect of asymmetric information on risk and behavior of mutual guarantee companies: an empirical analysis. Spanish Finance and Accounting Journal, pp. 469-497.

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