Willful Blindness (book review)

Canada Day Protest 2010
Canada Day Protest 2010 (Photo credit: nouspique)

Recently I read Margaret Heffernan’s book “Willful Blindness” (2011, Random House).  The byline of the book really says it all: “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril”…

In my own research work,  I have been pondering this concept of “willful blindness” for quite some time. I think it explains a lot about why as a society we are often slow to take action on things which — when examined from a somewhat independent and objective perch — seem blindingly obvious and urgent.The reasons Heffernan cites in this excellent book as the cause of “willful blindness” are all fairly well understood and generally accepted –her main argument is that when they are all taken together they create a systemic bias for institutional blindness that is very difficult to identify, and that requires deliberate strategies and tactics to proactively address. Some of the basic reasons:

  • we like to be with people we know and trust, and generally those people come from the same backgrounds as us. Hence while we talk about “diversity” in the workplace we generally don’t actively design it in. This aids “group think”…
  • we fall in love with people and with ideas (ideologies) and we then become systematically blind to limitations or flaws in those things and people we love;
  • when we are tired or stressed out (a usual feature of much of our modern workplaces) our brains become more simplistic in their decision making and situations we may have thought through more critically when we are refreshed we can easily overlook. This is often one of the causes behind industrial accidents;
  • at certain times, humans prefer ignorance to knowledge and to dealing with conflict and change by imagining it out of existence, which in legal terms is often referred to as “the ostrich instruction”– willful blindness as a legal concept.

She also identifies a number of “institutional” norms that help blind us to what is really going on, ranging from our ability to convince ourselves we are “just following orders”; the creation of “cults” which drive specific behavior in company cultures; a sense that there is “safety in numbers”; and ultimately that we often “de-moralize” our work environment through somewhat perverse financial incentives.

On a positive note, Heffernan does suggest that we can all become better at seeing the reality by developing “a fierce determination to see better”. While straightforward, this requires us to deliberately work at questioning our own assumptions, putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations and asking challenging questions of ourselves, others, and the situations we find ourselves in. Of course, this approach generally will lead us to stand out and draw attention to ourselves, to be ostracized (or worse) and to potentially put our own safety and security as risk. That, unfortunately, is a very tall order indeed.

While I might wish it to be different, the “support structure” in place for continuing willful blindness in our society is strong indeed. This excellent book gives further credibility to that wonderful saying: “It is impossible to wake the person who is only pretending to sleep.” Pity.


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