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BOOK REVIEW: Wilful Blindness

Posted by Kirsten Lowis on 11 April 2017
BOOK REVIEW: Wilful Blindness

BOOK: Wilful Blindness - Why we Ignore the Obvious at our own Peril
AUTHOR: Margaret Heffernan
Reviewed by: Kirsten Lowis

For a book that was too heavy on the problem and too light on the solution, I still enjoyed opening the eyes of my eyes to the wide range of factors and events that we, as a society and as individuals, are wilfully blind to.  The truth is, we are naturally biased and we cannot help it. We ignore things because we fear for our survival.


Does our life depend on technology? Or is technology dependent on our lives?  This evening, as I tap away on my Mac, I cannot ignore the ever-present buzz of electricity that surrounds me.  Technology is everywhere, and it is over-stimulating our brains and we are finding it more and more difficult to cope with all the inputs.  As a result, we often fatigue, break down or compromise the quality of any decision making.  Naturally, Heffernan says "our attention is a zero sum game -  when we focus on one thing we lose focus on other things".  Let's cut to the chase and use the perfect 4-letter-word as a truism for "Willful Blindness".


Love is blind.  I consider myself qualified to remark, having kissed a few toads in my time.  Well, apparently when we fall in love with someone, we become infatuated and uncontrollably focus on that person. "They're perfect for me" or "It must be fate.." or "It's true love" Blah, blah, blah.

In Heffernan's words, when we fall in love with someone "we see them as smarter, wittier, prettier, stronger than anyone else sees them. To us, a beloved parent, partner, or child has endlessly more talent, potential, and virtue than mere strangers can ever discern. Being loved, when we are born, keeps us alive; without love for her child, how could any new mother manage or any child survive? And if we grow up surrounded by love, we feel secure in the knowledge that others believe in us, will champion and defend us. That confidence that we are loved and therefore lovable is an essential building block of our identity and self-confidence. We believe in ourselves, at least in part, because others believe in us and we depend mightily on their belief. As human beings, we are highly driven to find and to protect the relationships that make us feel good about ourselves and that make us feel safe.. Those mirrors confirms our sense of self-worth. Love does the same thing and that seems to be just as true even if our love is based on illusion. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence not only that all love is based on illusion but that love positively requires illusion in order to endure."

One of the subtlest yet most pervasive manifestations of our willful blindness is our choice of life partners. Data from 25 million online dating site questionnaires reveal that "we mostly marry and live with people very like ourselves" -  oh, good Lord!

Heffernan writes, "We all want to feel that we have made our own choices, that they weren't predictable, that we aren't so vain as to choose ourselves, and that we are freer spirits, with a broader, more eclectic range of taste than the data imply. We don't like to feel that we're blind to the allure of those who are not like us; we don't like to see how trapped we are inside our own identity.  We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren't anxious. We belong. Our self-esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently.  When love dies, It often takes a person who is outside the system to see what others are blind to."

Well, my eyes really opened when she explored the "friendly alibis" we manufacture for our own inertia.  She writes: "Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn't have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can't notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won't let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs. It's a truism that love is blind; what's less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore. Ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious, dangerous, or absurd and there's much about how, and even where, we live that leaves us in the dark. Fear of conflict, fear of change keeps us that way. An unconscious (and much denied) impulse to obey and conform shields us from confrontation and crowds provide friendly alibis for our inertia. And money has the power to blind us, even to our better selves."

I have to ask, have you ever "turned a blind eye" to something? Heffernan talked about experiment where volunteers were asked to fill in a questionnaire. As they did, the room started to fill with smoke. When one person was alone, they left to room to seek help within 2 minutes. But when there were two others in the room who did nothing. Only 1 in 24 participants acted within 4 minutes. The wisdom of crowds can heavily influence our behaviour as we blindly assume they know more than we do.

In another experiment, 22 nurses in Ohio were instructed to administer an obviously excessive dose of medicine by a physician they did not know. 21 out of the 22 nurses gave to dose without resistance.  How about this one... Up to 25% of all plane crashes were caused by 'destructive obedience' e.g. not being prepared to challenge the authority of the Captain.  It's common for people to put their head in the sand to issues in the hope they may go away. Often in relationships, people marry those who cheat or mothers stay with husbands who abuse their child. The atrocities within the Catholic Church were also used as an example of fear-driven blindness, but the irony is our blindness to remain safe often pushes us into greater danger. Fear is a powerful inhibitor of action!

A couple of months ago in the Superfreaknonmics book review, I talked about the Milgram experiments.  I still can't believe that only 40% of the participants were prepared to shock the poor bastard with the full voltage when they were in the room versus 65% when out of sight or anonymous. This is the perfect example of how out of sight is literally out of mind. Face to face significantly changes our behaviour.

Let's wrap this up with talking about money.  There are many people who's moral currency is money.  For these people, money is the only key to survival and sadly many countries, religions, families and marriages have been destroyed because of this mentality.  So, why would we be so willfully blind to allowing money to become more important than the peril of love?

To wrap it up, we tend to focus more on about money and technology, and care less about people - which is the greatest tragedy of being wilfully blind. 

'Go go go said the bird: human kind cannot bear very much reality' -T.S Eliot, Four Quartets

Kirsten LowisAuthor:Kirsten Lowis
About: As the Founding Director of Zoom in Business - a subscription-based network and magazine, NQ Business Sales - a business sales firm based in North Queensland, and Bizrich - a business valuation firm, Kirsten has learnt from the trenches and brings a wealth of personal and professional experience and knowledge to our members. With over 13 years as a franchisee, retailer and start-up business owner, Kirsten has worked closely with fellow coaches, hundreds of clients and the best facilitators in Australia who have run their own business or have experience in running a business and teams. Kirsten’s extensive knowledge and experience as a Registered Business Valuer and Licenced Business Broker helps our readers and members improve awareness of the state of the market, understanding and confidence in buying, growing, valuing and selling their business, while connecting them with local and international news stories and experts to create a capable and dynamic business network.
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