How many times in our lives – at work or personally have we known that something isn’t quite right be it about a particular situation, a business transaction or a person and yet we have chosen to be willfully blind. According to Margaret Heffernan in her insightful and engaging book, “Willful Blindness” – why we ignore the obvious at our own peril, this is far more common and pervasive than we would possibly care to think about. With real case studies, she answers questions like, why do we choose to keep ourselves in the dark, what are the forces at work that make us deny the big threats staring at us in the face and not heeding the warnings and why as individuals, companies and countries we regularly look back in the mirror and howl: How could we have been so blind?
Here are nine factors at play that she covers in this highly recommended book: (These are her words, edited only occasionally for the sake of this blog).
1) Affinity and beyond – familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds comfort and a sense of safety. Madoff’s crime is described as an affinity crime, preying on people like him who knew others like themselves, who didn’t ask questions because their level of comfort was so high that they felt they could take shortcuts. Our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make which embed us snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. We think we see more but in fact the landscape has shrunk.
2) Love is blind – we blind ourselves to inconvenient or painful facts. Because our identity and security depends on our loved ones, we don’t want to see anything that threatens them. It is easier to be blind than deal with uncomfortable feelings. Neuroscience shows that love activates those areas of the brain associated with reward such as food, drink, money or cocaine. The chemical processes stimulated by love disable much of the critical thinking about the loved one. There is the paradox of blindness – we think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger. We make ourselves powerless when we pretend not to know.
3) Dangerous convictions – Psychologist Anthony Greenwald called this the “totalitarian ego.” It operates like a police state: locking away threatening or incompatible ideas, suppressing evidence, and re-writing history, all in the service of a central idea or self-image. (more…)