Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril Paperback – Feb. 7 2012
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- Publisher : Anchor Canada (Feb. 7 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 038566902X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0385669023
- Item Weight : 358 g
- Dimensions : 14.99 x 1.52 x 22.61 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #187,254 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
"[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."
"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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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
Top reviews from Canada
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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 ([...] 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.
Top reviews from other countries
It happens on both a micro and macro scale. It spans all parts of society. It can have devastating consequences to both individuals and communities.
Wilful Blindness was originally a legal term, but once Heffernan heard the term she started seeing Wilful Blindness everywhere.
In our collective history of the past and in how governments and businesses operate today.
Heffernan started talking to people, lots of people, from different professional backgrounds and they all knew what she was talking about.
They were all able to give examples of Wilful Blindness in their lives.
In Wilful Blindness, Heffernan identifies the causes and gives examples of the negative consequences of Wilful Blindness. She explains how to expand your mind to be less susceptible to the epidemic of Wilful Blindness.
Heffernan uses psychology to explain human behaviour when it comes to Wilful Blindness and suggests that:
- We like people that are the same or similar to ourselves. This can lead to blindness to difference and diversity and the benefits of the challenges that they bring.
- Love of people, ideas, money, things, values, can make us blind.
- Holding on to deeply held beliefs can mean we miss or ignore evidence that is contrary to these deeply held beliefs.
Everyone’s mind has limits and these limits are stretched to make some very complex organisations, which make it difficult to see the truth or know what’s going on.
- We bury our head in the sand. We hope that difficult issues will go away. We even delude ourselves by not looking, acknowledging or talking about issues.
- We blame external sources for ethically difficult decisions and justify it to ourselves and other by stating: I was just doing my job.
- Cultures, conformity and the craving for acceptance from our peers can make us blind to other, broader or different perspectives.
- People that see what others are blind to and do nothing reinforce the status quo. Not only that, but they also imply through omissions that everything that makes up the status quo is acceptable.
- Physical distance from a situation or problem can lead to cognitive dissonance and make someone blind.
- Money and the removal of ethics from work makes people obey and conform. They are much less likely to notice issues or be brave enough to make a stand.
- People who challenge Wilful Blindess have a tough time. But common qualities in these people include: a sense of social justice, they are generally nonconformists, they are often trendsetters, they feel compelled to raise an uncomfortable truth, they have determination, a high level of resilience, they obsess about the truth and the truth others are ignoring, they have an eye for detail and are willing to suffer both personally and professionally to get others to see the truth.
Throughout Wilful Blindness Heffernan presents a compelling argument and engaging narrative, which is enhanced with fully referenced examples. Examples include: child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, problems in BP, the banking crash caused by subprime mortgages and derivatives (2007-2010), the Nazis in World War 2 and post operative child deaths in Bristol.
Overall the book is a fascinating exploration of human psychology and why we often fail to see the obvious. If you’re interested in psychology, self-awareness, leadership or business you should read this book.
Some of the stories of consequences of such behaviour was enlightening and at times most fascinating.
I even think that Professor Heffernan is too optimistic. One of my favourite films is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest which is a wonderful story about how authority works. Jack Nicholson is the spirited, articulate rebel but he doesn't manage to escape, in fact he is destroyed. It's the man who pretends to be deaf and dumb, even though he's not deaf and dumb who manages to break out of the system. The film shows that if you want to have a smooth ride, expressing no opinion and not reacting to anyone else, is probably the shrewdest policy. The sad fact for whistleblowers is that EVERYBODY hates them. People want to avoid conflict and keep things ticking over.
As a person who survives on a very small income it was clear to me the economy was sailing over the edge of a cliff in 2002. But there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. And that's very much my policy towards institutional failings. You've got to be very careful when you see the Emperor has no clothes, because lots of people choose to believe he is wearing clothes. Hitler, Enron, house prices - you just have to let these things play out and hope that when they stop, there will be a chance to do something different.
The book shows that the villains usually get away with their gross misjudgements, and a few Google searches show they go on to other positions of power. I read the book in a week and it got me thinking, so well worth the price!
It is not that wilful blindness is necessarily a new concept. It has a legal definition and is embedded in British law: "knowledge that can be inferred if a person deliberately blinds himself to the existence of a fact. There is an opportunity for knowledge and a responsibility to be influenced but both are ignored."
But the extent to which wilful blindness is pervasive and is innate in all of us is sobering.
How could the holocaust be tolerated by the German nation? Surely it could not happen to us? A fascinating account of Albert Speer, 2nd in command to Hitler, who blinded himself to the treatment of slave labour and the extermination of the Jews makes you understand his motivation. A man of low self esteem, put down by his family, elevated to high office by Hitler. He owed everything to Hitler - his self esteem, status and position. Did he risk all his personal identity to oppose the final solution? He recognised in his trial the point in 1942 when, if he had wanted to know about the final solution, he could have known. Subsequently he tried to mitigate the effects, but without fully risking his personal position. Can we honestly say we have not taken this approach, albeit on less catastrophic issues?
In the 1950's Alice Stewart produced overwhelming evidence that X raying foetus's of pregnant women was a major cause of childhood leukaemia. But doctors kept on X raying pregnant women for 20 years. Why? Because X ray was a very successful technique on other fields, and hospitals had invested very heavily in X ray machines. The medical establishment did not want the concept of X raying undermined.
On a more personal level Hefffernan looks at the ostrich effect - the temptation all of us face when we get into trouble to not face up to bad news. Horizons narrow and we want to stick our heads in the sand. My wife points out to me Heffernan's evidence of the distraction of mobile phoning when driving. I do not want to hear the evidence.
When Heffernan looks at the drivers of wilful blindness including our preference for the familiar, dislike for conflict and change, a love of busyness, the need for acceptance among our peers, skill at displacing and diffusing responsibility and fascination with individual stars and big ideas, you can see it in yourself.
Familiarity breeds contentment. We are biased in favour of the familiar. Love is blind. Our identity depends critically on all the people we love.
Heffernan provides a neurological explanation likening the development of neural networks in the brain to the creation of a riverbed. Water follows the path of least resistance and the creek deepens. We all face the Status Quo trap: the preference for everything to remain the same. Change feels like redirecting the riverbed: effortful and risky. Change produces conflict.
The organisational forces of wilful blindness are strong in our society including obedience, the desire for conformity, the bystander effect, division of labour and money. She advances the concept that desire for money disengages us from the moral and social effects of our decisions.
Just as you begin to despair of your ability to not be wilfully blind, she focuses on the Cassandras, the devils advocates, dissidents, troublemakers or fools - ordinary folk who have shed their blindness. These people have kept their eyes open and fought for their beliefs often at great personal expense. There are the iconic such as Nelson Mandela, leading medical researchers like Alice Stewart's of childhood leukaemia fame of this world, but also many unknown individuals.
We do not have to be blind. We might hesitate. The cost might be high. But most of us do not wish to go through life blind. We can recognise the homogeity of our lives and reach out to those who do not fit in. We can welcome diversity into our major institutions. We can recognise our biases . We can and should be wary of big ideas, the grand ideologies that neatly answer all questions. We should seek disconfirmation and challenge such big ideas. Bringing in outsiders into institutions is one way to identify unconscious knowledge embedded within organisations.
Food for thought!