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Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril [Hardcover]

Margaret Heffernan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 15 2011
A book that will open eyes to the most serious problem of our times.

In the case of the US Government versus Enron, the presiding judge chose to employ the legal concept of willful blindness: you are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something which instead you strove not to see. The guilty verdict sent shivers down the spine of the corporate world. In this book, Margaret Heffernan draws on psychological studies, social statistics, interviews with relevant protagonists, and her own experience to throw light on willful blindness and why whistleblowers and Cassandras are so rare. Ranging freely through history and from business to science, government to the family, this engaging and anecdotal book will explain why willful blindness is so dangerous in a globalized, interconnected world, before suggesting ways in which institutions and individuals can start to combat it. Margaret Heffernan's thought-provoking book will force us to open our eyes.

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Review

"[An] absorbing new book about why we choose to avert our gaze from wrongdoings or flaws or sad certainties we can't bring ourselves to confront. Willful Blindness cuts a broad swath across the fabric of our culture."
—The Gazette
 
"Writing in clear, flowing prose . . . [Willful Blindness] made me think long and hard about how the pace and priorities of our daily lives can hinder our ability to live as decently and as truthfully as we can."
—The New York Times

“[A] riveting, important book. . . . [Heffernan] is an engaging writer able to marshal fascinating multi-disciplinary research into a narrative that traverses the quest for conformity, groupthink [and] how an overloaded mind leads to moral blindness. . . . Eye-opening.”
Macleans

“A call to arms to any whistle-blowers who see what lies ahead and have the courage to speak up. . . . A sharp-eyed perspective on the ever-gathering storm.”
Kirkus

 “A thoughtful and entertaining treatise on the seductiveness—and consequences—of ignoring what’s right in front of our eyes … Heffernan’s cogent, riveting look at how we behave at our worst encourages us to strive for our best.”
Publishers Weekly

Willful Blindness is an engaging read, packed with cautionary tales ripped from today’s headlines as well as a trove of research on why we often stick our head in the sand. With deft prose and page after page of keen insights, Heffernan shows why we close our eyes to facts that threaten our families, our livelihood, and our self-image—and, even better, she points the way out of the darkness.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

“An intelligent and eye-opening look at the pervasiveness of willful blindness across society. Margaret Heffernan presents overwhelming evidence of the need for mindfulness as part of the cure.”
—Ellen J. Langer, author of Mindfulness and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

Willful Blindness combines compelling anecdotes, insightful interviews, and convincing scientific evidence to confront the mental distortions that conspire to blind us. Heffernan skillfully shows that by questioning the reasons for our actions and beliefs, we can take positive steps to avoid deluding ourselves.”
—Daniel Simons, coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Margaret Heffernan is an unblinking observer of what makes us tick in work and life. This is a book that everyone should read with eyes—and minds—wide open!”
—Alan M. Webber, author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self

“Heffernan speaks with a relentlessly constructive voice, brave curiosity, a passion for truth, and the practical mindset of someone who has built and led successful organizations herself. She motivates us to resist our own tendency to ignore the truths around us, and provides the insights and tools for us to empower others to do the same.”
—Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D., author of Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right

About the Author

MARGARET HEFFERNAN was born in Texas, raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University. Her monthly column for Reader's Digest is read by over 8 million readers. She writes articles that are syndicated internationally, and blogs for The Huffington Post. Margaret is a popular speaker and panelist, addressing corporations, industry groups and business schools. A former producer for BBC radio in the UK, she continues to develop programs for the BBC. As an entrepreneur she has built up two businesses: one advising public affair campaigns in Massachusetts and another advising software companies trying to break into multimedia. Her work in interactive multimedia led to her leadership of several businesses that were part of the Internet giant CMGI. Over the period that she worked for CMGI, its stock increased over 700%.Her books are The Naked Truth, an expose of the environment for working women, and Women on Top, about female CEOs. She is a Visiting Professor at the Simmons School of Management and at the University of Bath and is Executive in Residence at Babson College. She has homes in the UK and in New Hampshire.

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Most helpful customer reviews
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
For anyone who wants to be an agent of social change this is a must read. You need to know what your up against. Hefferman does a wonderful job of weaving together neuropsychology and story. Perhaps, humans are simply hard wired to prevent any meaningful dialogue between opposing views from ever taking place. Likewise, the Emperor Without Clothes syndrome has been at play in the fiascoes throughout the corporate and political realm. To find out more, give this one a read. I highly recommend Wilful Blindness.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have recommended that many of my students read it, no matter what their major is. Feedback from them so far has also been positive.
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By Robert Morris HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Margaret Heffernan's background in business is wide as well as deep. In this, her latest book, she rigorously and eloquently examines a common problem: denying truths that are "too painful, too frightening to confront." Many people revert to denial because they are convinced that it is the only way to remain hopeful. "The problem arises when we use the same mechanism to deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgement, debate, action, and change." This is among the phenomena that Dante had in mind when reserving the last -- and worst -- ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Many of those whom Heffernan discusses in this book have what she characterizes as "a fierce determination to see." Their courage in daring to do so "reveals a central truth about willful blindness: We may think that being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change."

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was reminded of Sophocles' Oedipus who gains understanding (i.e. "sees" what is true and what is not) only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his dead wife. Similarly, only after Shakespeare's Lear loses his mind does he begin to "see" what he failed to understand previously. Heffernan asserts, and I wholly agree, that almost anyone can learned to "see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don't know? Just what am I missing here?"

My own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see and fail to see what they do not expect to see.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Really good...with one flaw May 5 2011
By Niel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I liked the central thesis of this book. Seeing examples of areas where individuals had blatantly disregarded the truth that was right in front of them cause be to become more self-aware, which says a lot to me about the quality of a book.

I am constantly fascinated by psychological experiments which demonstrate just how irrational our behavior can be. The author cites many of these, and it is easy to see myself in several of the situations. I give high marks for the self-analysis this book brought out for me.

My only complaint is her lack of acknowledgement that hindsight really is 20/20. Of course after the fact it's easy to find some facts which pointed to the disaster, but does the author really think that we should or could always see what is going to happen in advance? Yes, occasionally people predict what will happen before it does. The author places these individuals as heroes and claims we should listen to them more carefully. But what about the millions of prognostications which are wrong? Are we supposed to give every individual with a prediction a voice?

That point aside, I do recommend the book. It's though provoking in a way that most current writing is not.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How and why all of us should develop "fierce determination to see" whatever we need to understand Dec 10 2011
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Margaret Heffernan's background in business is wide as well as deep. In this, her latest book, she rigorously and eloquently examines a common problem: denying truths that are "too painful, too frightening to confront." Many people revert to denial because they are convinced that it is the only way to remain hopeful. "The problem arises when we use the same mechanism to deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgement, debate, action, and change." This is among the phenomena that Dante had in mind when reserving the last -- and worst -- ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Many of those whom Heffernan discusses in this book have what she characterizes as "a fierce determination to see." Their courage in daring to do so "reveals a central truth about willful blindness: We may think that being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change."

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was reminded of Sophocles' Oedipus who gains understanding (i.e. "sees" what is true and what is not) only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his dead wife. Similarly, only after Shakespeare's Lear loses his mind does he begin to "see" what he failed to understand previously. Heffernan asserts, and I wholly agree, that almost anyone can learned to "see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don't know? Just what am I missing here?"

My own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see and fail to see what they do not expect to see. The brief film of Daniel Simons' experiment involving Harvard students in a basketball passing drill (discussed by Heffernan on Pages 74-76) is well worth checking out at Daniels' home page. In her book, Heffernan examines several phenomena that help to explain both willful and involuntary "blindness" as well as their causes; also, she suggests lessons to be learned that can help us to develop a "fierce determination to see" whatever we need to understand. She also provides some especially valuable information about the importance of aerobic exercise and cites an article also well worth checking out, "Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition," co-authored by C.H. Hillman, K.I, Erickson et al.

Business executives who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out Charles Jacobs' Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Research, Edward Hallowell's Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, and Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Blindness Premise on Point, but Lacks Depth Oct. 6 2013
By James East - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
The premise that we all have intentional (and unintentional) `willful blindness' to things we do not want to hear or see is well presented. Blindness is all around us from

1) Social Proofs - (reference to Serpico or the Genovese murder)
2) Authority Misinfluence - (think of `well the boss said do it')
3) Stress Influence - (reduced mental capacity due to sleep deprivation and due dates)
4) Contrast Misreaction - (cognition is mislead from tiny changes)

In some business cultures you also get the adage of `don't bring me problems, bring a solution' is another intentional/unintentional blindness by the manager or boss that many have surely run across. In all, a good effort and book with a positive recommendation while overlooking the political comments by the author.

Nevertheless, I had to rate this book at only 3 stars. The use of the same quotes and examples several times in the book lacks a needed depth. In addition, this somewhat lower grade is also due to the author's own possible blindness. The author delves into political rhetoric in the second half of the book (somewhat annoying) but seems blind to the fact that whenever one enters into a political discussion the one entering has a chance of being wrong. For the author to point to the `correct' answer in a few of these discussions is possibly showing a `blindness' of her own. Oh well, we all have our own blind spots and to help with our own blindness a few other recommendations are below:

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits [Hardcover] by Wray Herbert
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael J. Mauboussin
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)by Robert B. Cialdini
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich
The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Paradox of Human Nature July 10 2013
By Vermont Reader - Published on Amazon.com
I purchased the audio version of the book and enjoyed listening to Margaret Heffernan read her book. Although the book's purpose is to heighten our awareness of our own shortcomings, her tone is neither preachy nor shill. She makes her points powerfully, with calm authority. I enjoyed her British accent, and it was easy to imagine her sitting across a table from me, discussing the issues in the book.

Prior to listening to "Willful Blindness," I'd read about a dozen books about failed decision making, such as "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The constant theme among them all is that we make ourselves powerless by pretending we don't know. Whether we are blind to our own shortcomings or blind to others' deceptions, we suffer in the end from this lack of knowing. Because the theme has been explored by so many others, I wondered if Heffernan would have anything original to say.

I found the book to be filled with tremendous insight into the paradox of the human condition. For example, Heffernan tells a story about her own life and her decision to marry a man with a serious heart problem that would, inevitably, lead to his death before the age of 40. Why would she blind herself to the fact of his medical condition and marry him, even after his other girlfriends had left him for healthier mates? It was love, she says. Our love for each other and our blindness to the faults of each other is part of the human condition. It is part of who we are. We are, in general, overly optimistic, wear rose colored glasses, trust others more often than we should, and typically fail to put all the facts together into a whole until confronted with a terrible, irreparable truth.

When does this blindness become dangerous, she asks? When there is harm, she says, especially when damage is done to the innocent, like children. So it is vitally important to learn how to trust our instincts, to have difficult conversations, and to take back any form of power that we might have given away. None of this is easy, she points out.

Other books on the topic make change seem so lineal: just realize how flawed your decision-making can be, and follow the instructions on how to remove one's blind spots. The great value of "Willful Blindness" is first pointing out through the use of stories how very human it is to be flawed, and then to heighten awareness of the value of recognizing difficult truths. Heffernan calls us to be better versions of ourselves, and because of her book, I think that we can.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting & some valuable insights on behaviour Jan. 23 2012
By Shirley Whittington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Interesting to read, easy to read, and gives informative discussion on human behaviour, especially in groups. Lots of research based evidence with some famous examples showing why people behave badly in groups; or simply ignore what's happening around them, even to their peril.

Gave me personally, good insights into why, when as an advertising (and later marketing) person, clients could be shown all evidence to help chose the best business choice, and yet would choose to ignore it at, to the detriment of the business. And even later when they saw this, they would often make choices again against what would seem to be logical and obvious. More than simply politics, there were other things going on. (A relief to realise it wasn't just bad presenting on my behalf!)

If you are in marketing or any subset of (PR, sales, advertising etc), or interested in human behaviour, then you will find this book worth while. It was perhaps 1 chapter too long - as nothing new seemed to be offered in the last one and I felt as though the publisher had said to the author, 'bit short. Could you do another chapter?' Interesting and worth purchasing.
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