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Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril [Paperback]

Margaret Heffernan
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 294 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; Reprint edition (3 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802777961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802777966
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14.2 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 48,288 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

Why, after every major accident and blunder, do we look back and say, How could we have been so blind? Why do some people see what others don't? And how can we change? Drawing on studies by psychologists and neuroscientists, and from interviews with business leaders, whistleblowers, and white collar criminals, distinguished businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan examines the phenomenon of willful blindness, exploring the reasons that individuals and groups are blind to impending personal tragedies, corporate collapses, engineering failures-even crimes against humanity.We turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to protect prestige. But greater understanding leads to solutions, and Heffernan shows how-by challenging our biases, encouraging debate, discouraging conformity, and not backing away from difficult or complicated problems-we can be more mindful of what's going on around us and be proactive instead of reactive.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Margaret Heffernan's background in business is wide as well as deep. In this, her latest book, she rigorously and eloquently examines a common problem: denying truths that are "too painful, too frightening to confront." Many people revert to denial because they are convinced that it is the only way to remain hopeful. "The problem arises when we use the same mechanism to deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgement, debate, action, and change." This is among the phenomena that Dante had in mind when reserving the last -- and worst -- ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Many of those whom Heffernan discusses in this book have what she characterizes as "a fierce determination to see." Their courage in daring to do so "reveals a central truth about willful blindness: We may think that being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change."

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was reminded of Sophocles' Oedipus who gains understanding (i.e. "sees" what is true and what is not) only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his dead wife. Similarly, only after Shakespeare's Lear loses his mind does he begin to "see" what he failed to understand previously. Heffernan asserts, and I wholly agree, that almost anyone can learned to "see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don't know? Just what am I missing here?"

My own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see and fail to see what they do not expect to see.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astute, Insightful, Powerful 28 Nov 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a searching and well researched, well written account of among other things the pernicious forms denial can take. A psychologically sound, timely and valuable publication.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Self Deception 24 Jan 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I gave this book 5 stars because it is not only well written and flowing but is full of interesting case studies.
I liked the way it went through in a step by step manner the subject.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in cognitive blindness and simple self deception.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Really good...with one flaw 5 May 2011
By Niel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I liked the central thesis of this book. Seeing examples of areas where individuals had blatantly disregarded the truth that was right in front of them cause be to become more self-aware, which says a lot to me about the quality of a book.

I am constantly fascinated by psychological experiments which demonstrate just how irrational our behavior can be. The author cites many of these, and it is easy to see myself in several of the situations. I give high marks for the self-analysis this book brought out for me.

My only complaint is her lack of acknowledgement that hindsight really is 20/20. Of course after the fact it's easy to find some facts which pointed to the disaster, but does the author really think that we should or could always see what is going to happen in advance? Yes, occasionally people predict what will happen before it does. The author places these individuals as heroes and claims we should listen to them more carefully. But what about the millions of prognostications which are wrong? Are we supposed to give every individual with a prediction a voice?

That point aside, I do recommend the book. It's though provoking in a way that most current writing is not.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How and why all of us should develop "fierce determination to see" whatever we need to understand 10 Dec 2011
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Margaret Heffernan's background in business is wide as well as deep. In this, her latest book, she rigorously and eloquently examines a common problem: denying truths that are "too painful, too frightening to confront." Many people revert to denial because they are convinced that it is the only way to remain hopeful. "The problem arises when we use the same mechanism to deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgement, debate, action, and change." This is among the phenomena that Dante had in mind when reserving the last -- and worst -- ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Many of those whom Heffernan discusses in this book have what she characterizes as "a fierce determination to see." Their courage in daring to do so "reveals a central truth about willful blindness: We may think that being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change."

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was reminded of Sophocles' Oedipus who gains understanding (i.e. "sees" what is true and what is not) only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his dead wife. Similarly, only after Shakespeare's Lear loses his mind does he begin to "see" what he failed to understand previously. Heffernan asserts, and I wholly agree, that almost anyone can learned to "see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don't know? Just what am I missing here?"

My own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see and fail to see what they do not expect to see. The brief film of Daniel Simons' experiment involving Harvard students in a basketball passing drill (discussed by Heffernan on Pages 74-76) is well worth checking out at Daniels' home page. In her book, Heffernan examines several phenomena that help to explain both willful and involuntary "blindness" as well as their causes; also, she suggests lessons to be learned that can help us to develop a "fierce determination to see" whatever we need to understand. She also provides some especially valuable information about the importance of aerobic exercise and cites an article also well worth checking out, "Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition," co-authored by C.H. Hillman, K.I, Erickson et al.

Business executives who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out Charles Jacobs' Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Research, Edward Hallowell's Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, and Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Blindness Premise on Point, but Lacks Depth 6 Oct 2013
By James East - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
The premise that we all have intentional (and unintentional) `willful blindness' to things we do not want to hear or see is well presented. Blindness is all around us from

1) Social Proofs - (reference to Serpico or the Genovese murder)
2) Authority Misinfluence - (think of `well the boss said do it')
3) Stress Influence - (reduced mental capacity due to sleep deprivation and due dates)
4) Contrast Misreaction - (cognition is mislead from tiny changes)

In some business cultures you also get the adage of `don't bring me problems, bring a solution' is another intentional/unintentional blindness by the manager or boss that many have surely run across. In all, a good effort and book with a positive recommendation while overlooking the political comments by the author.

Nevertheless, I had to rate this book at only 3 stars. The use of the same quotes and examples several times in the book lacks a needed depth. In addition, this somewhat lower grade is also due to the author's own possible blindness. The author delves into political rhetoric in the second half of the book (somewhat annoying) but seems blind to the fact that whenever one enters into a political discussion the one entering has a chance of being wrong. For the author to point to the `correct' answer in a few of these discussions is possibly showing a `blindness' of her own. Oh well, we all have our own blind spots and to help with our own blindness a few other recommendations are below:

On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits [Hardcover] by Wray Herbert
Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael J. Mauboussin
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)by Robert B. Cialdini
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life by Thomas Gilovich
The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Scott Plous
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Paradox of Human Nature 10 July 2013
By Vermont Reader - Published on Amazon.com
I purchased the audio version of the book and enjoyed listening to Margaret Heffernan read her book. Although the book's purpose is to heighten our awareness of our own shortcomings, her tone is neither preachy nor shill. She makes her points powerfully, with calm authority. I enjoyed her British accent, and it was easy to imagine her sitting across a table from me, discussing the issues in the book.

Prior to listening to "Willful Blindness," I'd read about a dozen books about failed decision making, such as "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The constant theme among them all is that we make ourselves powerless by pretending we don't know. Whether we are blind to our own shortcomings or blind to others' deceptions, we suffer in the end from this lack of knowing. Because the theme has been explored by so many others, I wondered if Heffernan would have anything original to say.

I found the book to be filled with tremendous insight into the paradox of the human condition. For example, Heffernan tells a story about her own life and her decision to marry a man with a serious heart problem that would, inevitably, lead to his death before the age of 40. Why would she blind herself to the fact of his medical condition and marry him, even after his other girlfriends had left him for healthier mates? It was love, she says. Our love for each other and our blindness to the faults of each other is part of the human condition. It is part of who we are. We are, in general, overly optimistic, wear rose colored glasses, trust others more often than we should, and typically fail to put all the facts together into a whole until confronted with a terrible, irreparable truth.

When does this blindness become dangerous, she asks? When there is harm, she says, especially when damage is done to the innocent, like children. So it is vitally important to learn how to trust our instincts, to have difficult conversations, and to take back any form of power that we might have given away. None of this is easy, she points out.

Other books on the topic make change seem so lineal: just realize how flawed your decision-making can be, and follow the instructions on how to remove one's blind spots. The great value of "Willful Blindness" is first pointing out through the use of stories how very human it is to be flawed, and then to heighten awareness of the value of recognizing difficult truths. Heffernan calls us to be better versions of ourselves, and because of her book, I think that we can.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting & some valuable insights on behaviour 24 Jan 2012
By Shirley Whittington - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Interesting to read, easy to read, and gives informative discussion on human behaviour, especially in groups. Lots of research based evidence with some famous examples showing why people behave badly in groups; or simply ignore what's happening around them, even to their peril.

Gave me personally, good insights into why, when as an advertising (and later marketing) person, clients could be shown all evidence to help chose the best business choice, and yet would choose to ignore it at, to the detriment of the business. And even later when they saw this, they would often make choices again against what would seem to be logical and obvious. More than simply politics, there were other things going on. (A relief to realise it wasn't just bad presenting on my behalf!)

If you are in marketing or any subset of (PR, sales, advertising etc), or interested in human behaviour, then you will find this book worth while. It was perhaps 1 chapter too long - as nothing new seemed to be offered in the last one and I felt as though the publisher had said to the author, 'bit short. Could you do another chapter?' Interesting and worth purchasing.
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