Rational Ignorance: Definition & Effect

Instructor: Briana Marquardt-Hutto

Briana has experience teaching and tutoring students of a variety of educational levels ranging from kindergarten to college and has an MA in Applied sociology.

In this lesson, you'll learn about rational ignorance. We'll explore its meaning, origins, applications, and effects and cover topics like widespread voter ignorance and the potential ramifications of this phenomenon.

Definition of Rational Ignorance

It's impossible to know everything. Some degree of ignorance is inevitable, and we all must personally decide what is worth knowing and understanding. Rational ignorance helps each of us decide what information would be most useful. Rational ignorance means intentionally choosing to remain uninformed on a topic because the cost of acquiring the information is greater than the estimated potential benefits.

We must decide if information is worth the cost of acquiring it.
Researching information

People can gain a variety of benefits from new knowledge: it can make them better at their job, more efficient at a task, communicate better, or even just satisfy curiosity. The possibilities are endless. Still, learning and understanding information can take time, energy, and/or capital, and comes at the cost of redirecting those resources from elsewhere. Even when information can offer some value, it must be worth the cost. Ultimately, it's a cost-benefits situation.

Rational Ignorance and Voting

While rational ignorance can be found and applied in a variety of contexts, this lesson would be incomplete if it did not address the term's relevance in the realm of politics. Anthony Downs coined the term rational ignorance in his 1957 book An Economic Theory of Democracy as a way to explain voter ignorance. Downs wondered why so many voters were ill-informed regarding what appeared to be relevant and significant issues.

Ultimately, he determined that many voters felt that the cost of acquiring information necessary to make an informed vote did not exceed the benefits of doing so. It would take a great deal of time to identify and understand every policy and program. Most people realize that even if they did put in countless hours of research on various subjects and vote in accordance, they are unlikely to personally make a difference. Public choice theory dictates that political choices and voter habits are based on economic self-interest. Because a single vote has a low probability of impact, under this theory, one might even say it's irrational for the individual to vote.

Rational ignorance was originally developed to explain widespread voter ignorance.
Voting box

Political Impact

Many people realize the irrationality of the individual voter and deal with this information in a variety of ways. Some choose to focus on only a couple issues that reflect their own self-interests, some simply side with a particular party that they feel represents their values, and some choose not to vote. While most are uninformed, many are misinformed because they simply let others inform them without doing any due diligence. Many choose to ignore new information that contrasts with their current views because it may require a more in-depth look. Changing one's views could sometimes even have an impact on social circles and the ways in which a person views themselves and others.

What are the effects of so many voters choosing to remain ignorant? While an uneducated voter may appear harmless and rational on an individual level, an uninformed (or misinformed) electorate can create problems within a democracy. The government puts taxpayer money towards a myriad of programs and policies, but few voters choose to educate themselves on these programs. If voters are not informed, their votes will be uninformed, if they vote at all, and the government will not represent them by reflecting their wishes. The result is that we end up with special interest groups having more influence on public policies. Many industries will lobby to achieve their goals rather than the best interests of the people.

Voter ignorance also results in taxpayers who don't know how their money is being used and perceive the costs of government to be less, a concept known as fiscal illusion. The lack of transparency can, at times, allow the government to expand and raise revenues. Most voters don't have a full understanding of how the tax system works.

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