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Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious [Kindle Edition]

Margaret Heffernan
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In the 2006 case of the US Government vs Enron, the presiding judge instructed the jurors to take account of the concept of wilful blindness as they reached their verdict about whether the chief executives of the disgraced energy corporation were guilty. It was not enough for the defendants to say that they did not know what was going on; that they had not seen anything. If they failed to observe the corruption which was unfolding before their very eyes, not knowing was no defence. The guilty verdict sent shivers down the spine of the corporate world.

In this book, distinguished business woman and writer, Margaret Heffernan, examines the phenomenon of wilful blindness. Drawing on a wide array of sources from psychological studies and social statistics to interviews with the relevant protagonists she examines what it is about human nature which makes us so prone to wilful blindness. Taught from infancy to obey authority, and absorbing the importance of selective vision as a key social skill, humans exacerbate their tendency to become institutionalised by joining organisations which are run by like-minded people. Wilful Blindness looks at how hard-work and the information overload of the modern workplace add to the problem. And examines why whistleblowers and Cassandras are so very rare.

Ranging freely through history and from business to science, government to the family, this engaging and anecdotal book will explain why wilful blindness is so dangerous in the globalised, interconnected world in which we live, before suggesting ways in which institutions and individuals can start to combat it. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Margaret Heffernan's thought provoking book will force open our eyes.

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Product Description


"Heffernan's cogent, riveting look at how we behave at our worst encourages us to strive for our best" --US Publishers' Weekly

'...using psychological studies and interviews and applies her theory to explain why incidents such as the financial crisis occur' --Daily Express, February 25, 2011

About the Author

MARGARET HEFFERNAN was born in Texas, raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University. She worked in BBC Radio as a television producer, before leaving to run the trade association IPPA. She returned to the US where she worked on public affair campaigns and with software companies trying to break into multimedia. She then joined CMGI where she ran, bought and sold leading Internet businesses. She is a visiting professor and Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Bath. She is the author of The Naked Truth and How She Does It, and Wilful Blindness. She writes a regular column for Real Business and the Huffington Post.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 686 KB
  • Print Length: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (3 Feb. 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004IK899W
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #26,912 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

MARGARET HEFFERNAN is an entrepreneur, Chief Executive and author. She was born in Texas, raised in Holland and educated at Cambridge University. She worked in BBC Radio for five years where she wrote, directed, produced and commissioned dozens of documentaries and dramas. As a television producer, she made documentary films for Timewatch, Arena, and Newsnight. She was one of the producers of Out of the Doll's House, the prize-winning documentary series about the history of women in the twentieth century. She designed and executive produced a thirteen part series on The French Revolution for the BBC and A&E. The series featured, among others, Alan Rickman, Alfred Molina, Janet Suzman, Simon Callow and Jim Broadbent and introduced both historian Simon Schama and playwright Peter Barnes to British television. She also produced music videos with Virgin Records and the London Chamber Orchestra to raise attention and funds for Unicef's Lebanese fund.

Leaving the BBC, she ran the trade association IPPA, which represented the interests of independent film and television producers and was once described by the Financial Times as "the most formidable lobbying organization in England."

In 1994, she returned to the United States where she worked on public affair campaigns in Massachusetts and with software companies trying to break into multimedia. She developed interactive multimedia products with Peter Lynch, Tom Peters, Standard & Poors and The Learning Company. She then joined CMGI where she ran, bought and sold leading Internet businesses, serving as Chief Executive Officer for InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and iCAST Corporation. She was named one of the Internet's Top 100 by Silicon Alley Reporter in 1999, one of the Top 25 by Streaming Media magazine and one of the Top 100 Media Executives by The Hollywood Reporter. Her "Tear Down the Wall" campaign against AOL won the 2001 Silver SABRE award for public relations.

In 2004, Margaret published THE NAKED TRUTH: A Working Woman's Manifesto about Business and What Really Matters (Jossey-Bass) and in 2007 she brought out WOMEN ON TOP: How Female Entrepreneurs are Changing the Rules for Business Success. She is Visiting Professor of Entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston and Executive in Residence at Babson College. She sits on the Council of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the UK as well as one the boards of several private companies. Margaret blogs for the Huffington Post and BNET and writes for magazines around the world. She was recently featured on television in The Secret Millionaire and on radio in Changing the Rules. She has written three plays for the BBC and is just starting her fourth. She is married with two children.

As the banks were melting down, I kept wondering: Why did no one see this coming? I could see it, many people around me could see it. That the world was running on debt was plain to many people. So why were we so surprised? And then I thought: this feeling is familiar. That sensation of knowing something and not knowing something. Skeletons in cupboards. Emperors new clothes. The elephant in the room. The idea that you're safe as long as you don't recognize the one thing that truly threatens you. I'd seen it in people who smoked and knew they shouldn't, others who never opened their credit card bills, in marriages where you knew one of them was having an affair. And I suddenly realized: that's what it is. In some walk of life, we are all wilfully blind. And I started to wonder: How exactly does that work....?

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars out of darkness 31 Jan. 2011
By inoz
The past decade has, perhaps, seen more than its fair share of failures, from the investors left penniless and destitute by the collapse of Enron or the exposure of the Madoff fraud, or the gross irresponsibility and greed of banks, though the disaster of the Iraq war and its aftermath to the egregious mishandling of the New Orleans hurricane or the gigantic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Margaret Heffernan's thesis is that these and many other examples are the consequence of wilful blindness; the inability of knowing subjects to see what was clearly manifest before them.

The book is an engrossing tour de force describing these and many other examples, often augmented by revealing interviews with those who were closest to the action. This in itself makes riveting reading, but Heffernan does far more than this; she adds rich and perceptive commentary supplemented, in many cases, by results from psychological and medical research papers, including recent intriguing data from fMRI scans that reveal, in some cases, that we are driven by the limbic brain (the amygdala) which is so tenuously linked to the cortex where our higher mental processes are carried out. The theme is reminiscent of a long-forgotten book by Arthur Koestler (The Ghost in the Machine), written well before fMRI scanning was invented, in which he discusses consequences for humanity of this uncertain communication channel.

In her penultimate chapter, Heffernan discusses some cases of whistle blowers, the truly courageous and invariably persecuted people who are driven by higher moral instincts to take a stand when they have seen that misdemeanour must be exposed.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book and a real page turner 28 Jan. 2011
By denbex
I found this book fascinating and couldn't put it down. The book is both authoritative and extremely readable. Margaret Heffernan uses research evidence well. Like many others I already knew the Milgram research but she presents it freshly and she does the same with the other research evidence that she uses. I liked the way in which she included aspects of her own "wilful blindness" to illustrate how we all are prone to this condition at times. The juxtaposition of wilful blindness in business and wilful blindness in a social setting is masterly. The consequences of wilful blindness can be devastating; the implications of the story of the people of Libby, Montana should be a lesson to everyone. This book helps everyone to think again.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Troubling Stuff 25 Feb. 2011
By William Cohen VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the kind of book that makes Sunday newspapers obsolete. It's well-informed, pacy, full of good stories and good fun. It manages to be very depressing and at the same time rather inspiring. Having worked for a few institutions, I've discovered that I'm best suited to working on my own, and Margaret Heffernan explains why. In organisations, people start seeing things from their own point of view, or perhaps more importantly turning a blind eye to what's really going on. There are loads of toe-curling stories about how charismatic people in high places can squash lesser minions who have the temerity to challenge their authority.

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.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Opened my Eyes 26 Jun. 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Very occasionally a book appears that distils a human characteristic that pervades a society which encourages you to rethink your opinions. This is one of those books - a game changer.

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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it; don't be blind
This is a must read. How we can all turn into Gorilla Watchers.
Published 2 days ago by Simon Laurie
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye opener to the world of hypocrisy and those who affect our lives...
Eye opener to the world of hypocrisy and those who affect our lives every day.
Published 5 months ago by Petros
3.0 out of 5 stars I was recommended this book but I don't think that person can ...
I was recommended this book but I don't think that person can have read it or else is being wilfully blind to it's message in the present! Read more
Published 5 months ago by rosemary Abbott
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
A must read to (a) enlighten yourself (b) increase your understanding of social / global dynamics and issues, (c) empower and equip yourself, and (d) counter the tactics of... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Craggie
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever
Clever book,
good read
Published 6 months ago by Oliver
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Really thought provoking.
Published 6 months ago by Georgina white
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating topic and Margaret has done her homework but struggling...
Fascinating topic and Margaret has done her homework but struggling to finish the book due to example after example as relevant as it may be.
Published 8 months ago by norman
4.0 out of 5 stars A disturbing book that despite dealing with some complex issues ...
A disturbing book that despite dealing with some complex issues (e.g what was the cause of the banking crisis?) had me following the argument throughout.
Published 8 months ago by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars A window on what goes wrong in big organisations
This book was recommended to me and whilst it was hard going, it did provide some insight as to the dangers of group think.
Published 10 months ago by 3PW
5.0 out of 5 stars If even 50% of employers could read chapter 10 on ...
If even 50% of employers could read chapter 10 on DE-moralising Work, and act on it, they could transform the British attitude to work and probably the economy as well.
Published 11 months ago by Dr. P. M. Elworthy
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