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Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious [Paperback]

Margaret Heffernan
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Feb 2012
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. She looks at how hard work and the information overload of the modern workplace add to the problem. And she 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 details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (2 Feb 2012)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1847399053
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847399052
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 126,229 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

WHY WILFUL BLINDNESS?
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....?

Product Description

Review

'Heffernan presents a readable analysis of the way powerful and intelligent people deliberately set aside crucial facts and turn a blind eye to fatal errors and frauds. A polemic against the dangers of docility and "groupthink" in every walk of life, it was another finalist for Business Book of the Year' --Books of the Year, Financial Times

'Writing in clear, flowing prose, (Heffernan) draws on psychological and neurological studies and interviews with executives, whistleblowers and white-collar criminals' --New York Times

'An engaging read, packed with cautionary tales...Heffernan shows why we close our eyes to facts that threaten our families, our livelihood, and our self-image - and, even better, she points the way out of the darkness' --Daniel H. Pink, author of DRIVE and A WHOLE NEW MIND

'Willful Blindness is a remarkable book...It is a tour de force of brilliant insights, broad span applications and written in the most engaging style' --Philip Zimbardo

'Uniquely broad in scope, insightfully analyzed, and engagingly written. This in-depth look at willful blindness is an excellent read' --Albert Bandura

'Entertaining and compellingly argued book' --Sunday Times Supplement

'Writing in clear, flowing prose, (Heffernan) draws on psychological and neurological studies and interviews with executives, whistleblowers and white-collar criminals...the book made me think long and hard about how the pace and priorities of our daily lives can hinder our ability to live as decently and as truthfully as we can' --New York Times

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

'A polemic against the dangers of docility and "groupthink" in every walk of life, it was a finalist for Business Book of the Year' --Books of the Year, Financial Times

`An engaging read... With deft prose and page after page of keen insights, Heffernan shows why we close our eyes to facts that threaten our families, our livelihood, and our self-image - and, even better, she points the way out of the darkness' --Daniel H. Pink, author of DRIVE and A WHOLE NEW MIND

'A remarkable book...It is a tour de force of brilliant insights, broad span applications and written in the most engaging style' --Philip Zimbardo

'Uniquely broad in scope, insightfully analyzed, and engagingly written. This in-depth look at willful blindness is an excellent read' --Albert Bandura

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars out of darkness 31 Jan 2011
By inoz
Format:Paperback
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
Format:Paperback
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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10 of 10 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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5 of 5 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
3.0 out of 5 stars Solid analysis, would benefit from editing, perhaps a little guilty...
I enjoyed this book and liked how the various ways in which we delude ourselves are analysed and categorised. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Mike in Sussex
5.0 out of 5 stars help to understand what seems like corruption is perhaps just human...
An insightful book which made me reconsider the actions I have seen people take which I thought were lacking in integrity at the time but now consider may have been just... Read more
Published 3 months ago by C. Spencer Weatherley
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book
I saw Margaret Hefferman on TV which is why I went and bought the book. Really interesting to see what we do in our owns minds to avoid conflict. A good read.
Published 4 months ago by Mr. Alexander Watt
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book for tackling our mixed responses to climate change...
This is a powerful book that has a lot to say to people worried about how we tackle climate change and global warming issues, and how we tend to hope for a miracle cure or fix for... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Daniel Halevi Bloom
5.0 out of 5 stars Challenging subject, accessible prose
A really good read. Thought provoking. Exploring how and why we all are silenced and how hard it is to speak truth to power.
Published 7 months ago by Rocknessjude
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking
Very interesting and enjoyable read, with lots of recent case studies drawn upon. I would recommend it to anyone interested in organisational culture, effective leadership and... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Valerie Sheridan
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read
I haven't finished this yet but it is an excellent read. Well written and very interesting covers multiple examples including medical and industry incidents. Thoroughly recommend.
Published 13 months ago by Sq
3.0 out of 5 stars In the kingdom of the blind ...
Wilful blindness is a legal term for the state where a person wilfully closes their eyes to events that should otherwise be obvious to them. Read more
Published 13 months ago by I Read, Therefore I Blog
4.0 out of 5 stars A book to make you think
A book that is readable, concise in its use of helpful examples to illustrate the point.
And it really makes you stand back and think about corporate power and responsibility,... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Bridge View
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent- read it and learn a lot.
This is an excellent book.

It is an account of how people and groups manage to entirely miss seeing things. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Dr. Nicholas P. G. Davies
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