Wilful Blindness – Why we ignore the obvious at our peril

By Margaret Heffernan


This book was shortlisted for the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Awards and it’s easy to see why. Its message is equally applicable to business and personal life and it really is a must-read.

Margaret Heffernan explores the many ways we choose not to face difficult truths, and seeks to understand and uncover why we do so, and how we can change.

Wilful blindness started life as a legal principle which stated that a guilty verdict must be delivered if the jury believes the defendant ‘wilfully shut [his] eyes’ to an act which he knew to be illegal. Essentially, “you are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something which instead you strive not to see”.

Heffernan first encountered this when reading the transcript of the trial of Enron’s CEO, however wilful blindness is not limited to big corporations or illegal or immoral dealings. It is wilful blindness that leads us to mix with people similar to ourselves, employ people similar to ourselves, and ignore facts, events and behaviours that we do not wish to deal with. Everyone is biased and makes implicit associations – this is where we get stereotypes – however it’s what we do with this information, and how we overcome these biases, that matters. There are numerous real-life examples of wilful blindness to illustrate Heffernan’s points; to prove the above she cites the introduction of blind auditions for symphony members – when they are were introduced, the chances of a female musician being accepted increased by 300% by the final round.

What is disconcerting about wilful blindness is not only that it’s unconscious but it is proven to be a neurological, and therefore physical process. Basically, we all do it. Robert Burton was the Chief of Neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital and he talks about neural networks and compares them to the creation of a riverbed:

“Imagine the gradual formation of a riverbed. The initial flow of water might be completely random – there are no preferred routes in the beginning. But once a creek is formed, water is more likely to follow this newly created path of least resistance. As the water continues, the creek deepens and a river develops.”

The longer we live, and the more we experience, the faster and easier the water flows as our ‘creeks’ grow ever deeper, and this contributes to our inability to see. In effect, our decisions and experiences slowly start to restrict our view. And whether it’s our desire to belong or obey, or our fear of change or imbalance which leads us to blindness, the results are the same: the less we see, the more comfortable and certain we feel.

Whilst individuals and groups are susceptible to wilful blindness, it can be far more damaging when organisations don’t see due to the scale of damage this can cause. Everyone filters the information they receive; the human brain simply cannot take in all the information we see every day so it takes in the information that makes us feel good, and filters out any information that might make us uncomfortable, and it is evident that it can filter out a lot.

There are many, many examples of wilful blindness in this book, from the inability of the Catholic Church to admit to the guilt of abusive priests, who were sent away rather than punished, to the complicity and inaction of the mortgage industry regulators who failed to act on sub-prime lending, to Alice Stewart, a physician who discovered in 1956 that X-raying pregnant women had a direct link to childhood cancers, and who was ignored until the 1980’s as the medical establishment couldn’t reconcile this amazing new technology with causing harm. These are all examples of an entire group being ignoring uncomfortable truths but it’s also found in less scandalous cases: in families where an affair is suspected but never mentioned, or in workplaces where there might be a culture of high pressure and bullying.

The good news however is that it is within our capability to diffuse it by applying intent and attention. Each of us continues to change right up to the moment that we die, and each new experience will alter how our minds work. Sydney Brenner, who worked on the human genome, reminds us that even identical twins who share the same genes are still two different people, who vary in their experiences, opinions and environments.

In business, it’s not enough for the owner to say that they didn’t know, nor for the staff to say they were following orders. We must resist the urge to follow others’ actions and instead tread our own path and seek our own truth. We mustn’t be afraid to call out questionable behaviours or practices.

We can choose not to know, or we can insist on looking, and that will give us clarity, hope and power.


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