on 31 January 2011
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. The final chapter `See Better' is a masterly discussion of the wider philosophical and psychological themes that are exemplified by the earlier material.
In recent years, Margaret Heffernan has written extensively on business matters, and it is especially interesting to see that smaller organisations, where internal discussion and criticism is facilitated, can avoid the pitfalls that have wreaked havoc in large complex and hierarchical corporations like BP, where the top down edict of `reduce costs by 25%' have, in the end, led to hugely expensive and fatal catastrophe.
This is a book that no serious business person can afford to ignore. Likewise, it will surely have significant impact for students of psychology and sociology whilst being readable and accessible in a way that will appeal to the general public.
on 28 January 2011
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.
on 26 June 2011
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. The medical establishment did not want the concept of X raying undermined.
On a more personal level Hefffernan looks at the ostrich effect - the temptation all of us face when we get into trouble to not face up to bad news. Horizons narrow and we want to stick our heads in the sand. My wife points out to me Heffernan's evidence of the distraction of mobile phoning when driving. I do not want to hear the evidence.
When Heffernan looks at the drivers of wilful blindness including our preference for the familiar, dislike for conflict and change, a love of busyness, the need for acceptance among our peers, skill at displacing and diffusing responsibility and fascination with individual stars and big ideas, you can see it in yourself.
Familiarity breeds contentment. We are biased in favour of the familiar. Love is blind. Our identity depends critically on all the people we love.
Heffernan provides a neurological explanation likening the development of neural networks in the brain to the creation of a riverbed. Water follows the path of least resistance and the creek deepens. We all face the Status Quo trap: the preference for everything to remain the same. Change feels like redirecting the riverbed: effortful and risky. Change produces conflict.
The organisational forces of wilful blindness are strong in our society including obedience, the desire for conformity, the bystander effect, division of labour and money. She advances the concept that desire for money disengages us from the moral and social effects of our decisions.
Just as you begin to despair of your ability to not be wilfully blind, she focuses on the Cassandras, the devils advocates, dissidents, troublemakers or fools - ordinary folk who have shed their blindness. These people have kept their eyes open and fought for their beliefs often at great personal expense. There are the iconic such as Nelson Mandela, leading medical researchers like Alice Stewart's of childhood leukaemia fame of this world, but also many unknown individuals.
We do not have to be blind. We might hesitate. The cost might be high. But most of us do not wish to go through life blind. We can recognise the homogeity of our lives and reach out to those who do not fit in. We can welcome diversity into our major institutions. We can recognise our biases . We can and should be wary of big ideas, the grand ideologies that neatly answer all questions. We should seek disconfirmation and challenge such big ideas. Bringing in outsiders into institutions is one way to identify unconscious knowledge embedded within organisations.
Food for thought!
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. Hitler, Enron, house prices - you just have to let these things play out and hope that when they stop, there will be a chance to do something different.
The book shows that the villains usually get away with their gross misjudgements, and a few Google searches show they go on to other positions of power. I read the book in a week and it got me thinking, so well worth the price!
on 28 June 2011
Heffernan has a good point to make, although she sadly over eggs her miracle cure that she promises. She runs out of steam at the end, but reading this has led me to think more about challenging my own beliefs and broadening my exposure to critique.
She's no heavyweight intellectual and there is no massive appendix of references as you'd get with e.g. Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins etc. But a worthy read on the path to self improvement.
on 20 April 2014
I enjoyed this book and liked how the various ways in which we delude ourselves are analysed and categorised. Much of this is put down to the way our perceptions and brains work; in a sense this makes us victims of our own wilful blindness, but Heffernan does not permit that easy cop out and points out there are things we can do to avoid ignoring the obvious. The book is full of illustrations of wilful blindness in action and the vast majority of examples are unarguable; she uses love, bullying, fraud, incompetence, corporate misbehaviour, corruption and plain evil to illustrate how we are all capable of failing to see what is staring us in the face, or alternatively, deliberately turning a blind-eye and failing to stand up for the truth. All of this was excellent and well worth the read. On the other hand, many of the examples were dragged out to the point of tedium; the very first chapter makes the point that we are attracted to people like ourselves and builds on this to show multiple different examples of what "like ourselves" means and how we build that into our lives so that we exist in a cosy self-supporting world view. I have no argument with that, but the examples and illustrations seemed to go on and on for page after page taking up about 10% of the entire book; it really needs editing down. The final chapter is essentially a call to action, with which I wholeheartedly agree, aimed at corporations, governments, institutions, regulators, educators and all of us to become more wise, essentially by asking the final question in the book, "Just what am I missing here." But, my final question is whether Heffernan is being wilfully blind to the magnitude of the task, she notes the issues: corporations too big to manage, self-interests too entrenched to be moved, cosiness too comfortable to be disturbed; but she doesn't give answers. Maybe that's the point of the book, we need more questions.
This book is about the way in which we go along with things; the way in which we fail to take control. Heffernan looks at the BP crisis, the mortgage disaster and many other crises. In many cases there were people who had access to information that made clear the scale of a disaster, or its likelihood. They chose to ignore the facts: why? In most cases, not because of criminal fraud, but because they did not feel strong enough to stand up to authority or, even more disturbingly, in a lot of cases, they felt that authority must be right.
Reading this book is a bit like being asked what you would do faced by a homicidal maniac waving a gun at an innocent child: the answer is that one would leap at the miscreant, wrestle the gun from his hands and make a citizen's arrest. In reality, would one do that, or decide that such actions would "endanger the child" and thus leave one, reluctantly (relieved?) to let matters proceed?
When I started reading I was thinking, "I don't believe that people could be as silly as to behave like this." As I progressed through the book, my reaction changed to an acceptance that other people could be so foolish and, as I approached the end, I finally allowed that, in the right (or wrong) circumstances, I would do as these people had done.
This is not a critical book. It does not belittle the people who failed to act, it examines the reasons and challenges the reader to, hand on heart, say that they would have done differently. Having read this, I wish that I could say that, even if I might have done some of these things previously, I am now immune. I cannot. What I can say is that I am armed with the information as to how to recognise the warning signs and, were everybody so to be, the World would be a better place. This book is required reading by... well, everyone.
on 11 March 2011
At times a difficult read, but rewarding. It shows how we turn the proverbial blind eye to matters we do not want to face. It explains some disasters,and the financial collapses of the past few years. If you are in business or just a human being who wants to learn about human nature. read this book. It really is an eye-opener. You will see the world differently after you turn the last page. I know I did.
on 8 March 2011
I enthusiastically recommend this book. It is wise, well researched and humane. It is a provocative and persuasive plea for sanity. It is packed with examples of intellectual and moral misconduct - and the reasons behind such behaviour. Unfortunately I fear that the sort of people who should read it are not the sort of people who would read it. I have always believed in the importance of constructive dissent and reading this book has strengthened my conviction. I feel a little more courageous having read it, and convinced that positive change is possible. I hope other readers enjoy a similar experience. If I may end my remarks by recommending another book - apologies to Margaret Heffernan - The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman follows a similar theme and is superb. If the people who run this world read either book - or preferably both - it would be a far better place.
on 30 March 2015
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 unscrupulous and psycopathic people and organisations.