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4.4 out of 5 stars
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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.
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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. This book examines the different psychological processes that can operate to make people wilfully blind to a situation, including:
- exhaustion;
- pattern recognition within the brain;
- the effect of money, conformity and group think;
- why some people turn are able to resist such processes.

Heffernan cites a number of psychological studies, summarising them in a way that's easy to understand while also drawing out the most pertinent and interesting bits. These were, for me, the most interesting parts of the book, particularly because she includes details from famous studies that are often overlooked but also because she conveys the science effectively.

Unfortunately the book fails to convince when applying these studies to real world situations. Although the Enron case is supposed to be the book's starting point, it doesn't actually get a lot of page time and is treated superficially (only one interviewee is cited in support of Heffernan's argument). Because the approach is repeated across all of the case studies, none of them are really examined in detail.

The extrapolation also seemed to sometimes be stretched to fit the theory with Heffernan unwilling to consider alternative matters that could explain the outcome (e.g. she blames the unwillingness of music executives in the 90s to adapt to on-line music when she pitched a platform to them but the unwillingness could stem from practical financial reasons). Ultimately I think it would have been better to apply the theories to one or two specific cases and drilling down in depth to give a fuller picture of how these psychological processes work in practice. Certainly, I would have found it more convincing.

I also thought that Heffernan failed to fully consider the effect of whistle blowing helplines in large organisations, which are implemented to counter some of the psychological effects she discusses. Even if she doesn't believe they're effective, it would have been interesting to find out why and whether any studies have been done on such lines.

Ultimately it's an interesting read and there are plenty of footnotes if you want to read on. It's also well written and thought-provoking. I would read Heffernan's other work on psychology but feel this is more of a nutshell overview than a definitive guide.

Review copy from publisher.
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on 6 April 2011
Wilful Blindness is the kind of rebel-rousing and illusion-breaking book one used to come across from left-wing think tanks spouting -isms. Except Heffernan is on the other side, so to speak - an internationally respected business-woman who writes from her own experiences, and most definitely gives the impression of walking the talk. The book contains a catalogue of data from psychological experiments, for example Miligram's obedience tests (1974), which it could be argued, have been at the margins of management training courses rather than their central core. Heffernan is a critical organisational thinker with a philosophically engaging style who seeks to challenge attitudes to ignoring the obvious (normalisation) and sees it as a duty of every employer to recognise the talent buried within organisations often ignored out of not chiming with the conventional.

The nub of the book is about uncovering the uncomfortable, the uncertain and uneasy and investigating the structural blindness of 'group-thinking' (Janis). A 'balanced bias' is finally proffered through a number of constructive management techniques, which aim to achieve a far healthier organisational state.

In combining the author's not inconsiderable business ventures with a critical commentary of morally reducing management practices, Heffernan illuminates the causes celebres of corporate crime, for example, the Maddoff Ponzi scheme investment scandal (2008) becomes grist to her mill of being suckered by the influence of social networks. Like a modern-day Cassandra, we learn that it is the despised and those frustrated with baffled rage who know most, but won't necessarily be heard or set us free without positive alignment.

One might get the impression then that there is no way out of the collusional and subtle-handed persuasions of structurally blind organisations. With the gravitational directional pull of the status quo so conspiring as to prevent open dissent, "awkward and provactive truths" rarely if ever get aired. A rather alarming finding then is to discover that those with the most potential to shape our fortunes, the better-off and dominant, are the more likely to have their heads buried in the sand with regards to foreseeing the detail of their consequences - the so-called 'Ostrich Instruction'.

Heffernan's psychological traps are broken down into headings that resemble the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not over-rely on affinity and love, indulge obedience and conformity, be content to be a bystander or diffuse responsibility through distance and division of labour etc. A rather stern warning is given to the over-zealous following of monetary rewards that reinforces egoistic self-worth - a prime cause of unresponsiveness to alternatives and argument, as evidenced in the recent financial crisis.

The overall conclusion reached, however, is that organisational weaknesses stem mostly from personal deceptions - of a mind wanting to be as comfortable and consistant as any creature of habit. It takes a lot of self-understanding and a giving to a personal freedom of thought to develop a conscience, and unfortunately this is hindered in the often expressed agenda of a social conscience seeking to fit in. "Thinking without a banister", as Arendt so beautifully described it, is such a mission critical task as to be taught at all opportunities and reading this book goes some way to developing enlightened judgement. The material in deliberation might be as age-old as the human condition, but a new reminder to remove the blinders and keep them off when one is not invited to ask or disconfirm, is not such a bad thing!
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VINE VOICEon 22 March 2013
This is an excellent book.

It is an account of how people and groups manage to entirely miss seeing things. It describes the strategies people use to make sure they do not have to confront the reality of different information, other viewpoints, other interpretations and so end up making decisions on poor, incomplete and misleading information.

It shows how common such behaviours are, and gives some sense of the reasons why people pursue such behaviours as long as they do, and long past the point at which a sensible outside observer would spot a need to stop and alter course. The people who she shows as examples of wilful blindness in action are not very different from us, and their motives are not so different from our own.

There are some quite worrying observations. Many people notice something is wrong, but the number willing to act and alter it is few. The few who do take action to correct things are often not thanked for their work, and often forced out of their job, or even the country. The example of Steve Bolsin is key here. We'll know British medicine has corrected one of its blindspots when he is welcome back in Britain and given a knighthood for services to Patient Safety

This book is excellent and well worth reading. It explains a lot about us, and why we are so easily conformed to social pressures, so easily close down our options and inputs, and so easily ignore anything that does not fit into our personal or group worldview. It explains why so few are able to see the problem, and even fewer willing to act on it.

It doesn't inspire a very flatering view of ourselves as noble, intelligent, self realising individuals. It shows us how easily we all fall into line for ease, laziness, fear and groupthink.

This is a very important book and I recommend it to readers.

Our lawmakers and other leaders need to notice it and put in place strong protections for whistleblowers to make challenging Wilful Blindness slightly less exceptional than it is at present.
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on 2 April 2011
I bought my copy after hearing Margaret Heffernan speak on a radio programme. Using many known, and less well known theories and findings from the worlds of psychology and business the author sets about de-mythologising the most commonly held truths of individual and in-group behaviour.
It is very well written,(literate - sic), enjoyable and challenging.
I would suggest that anyone concerned or reflective of their own behaviour or the behaviour and functioning of groups/organisations will find it of real interest.
Readers who don't normally buy books concerning business theory (myself included because they are largely badly written tosh) might want to order a copy as a this book has lessons that can be applied to many contexts.
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on 2 August 2011
This book could be less than half its current length, and miss out nothing. It repeats itself endlessly by giving one long, drawn-out example after another, when a few paragraphs would have been plenty. It's also written in a mid-Atlantic style which is part American news article, part TV documentary script. Which is fine if you like that style, otherwise very irritating. What this book says is very interesting, but there's nowhere near enough material here to properly fill a book.
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on 26 August 2011
I picked this book up from the shelf to take to holiday. It hasn't disappointed. It has really got me thinking about my own life and workplace. I have always wondered why is it that when everybody knows what's wrong, nobody actaully says anything. We collectively ignore the really obvious problems that everyone knows are there, in our personal and professional lives. This book encourages you, tells you its ok, to start challenging some of these obvious truths. I think its' a very important read for any thinking person. We've been making the same mistakes for many years; it's time we did something different. Thank you Margaret for this work!
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on 28 April 2015
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!

Interesting examples but I found I skip read in places....a sure sign that some editing was needed. The end came without real analysis or conclusions.

However I did read to the end, it was OK
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on 12 April 2011
The idea of the book - yes, it has ONE, repeated endlessly - is that it is human nature to turn a blind eye to information that goes against convention, peer group pressure, and conformity. The consequences are, for example, the financial crisis of 2008, BP, the Irish priest debacle and numerous other examples. For those who find this surprising - and there are obviously large numbers who do - all I can say is they must be unfamiliar with psychology of the last 50 years. Written in lucid prose, this book is really a collection of these presented as top line findings in a humanistic format.

That Margaret Heffernan is also wilfully blind to her own feminist conventional thinking is also pretty obvious. As a committed feminist, she is hell bent on including as many female Cassandras as she can muster. She even states here preference for women like herself early on, and then repeats her prejudices throughout the book, while once in a while denying them. Is she wilfully blind because she is a feminist? While she attacks the Irish priests and the Church over child sex abuse, she has no time for the wilful blindness of the Catholic Church in their attitude towards the Jews throughout history. Is she wilfully blind because she is a Catholic? I can think of a few other cases of the author being the pot who calls the kettle, 'black', but I think I've made my point.

On the whole, this is a well written, interesting account of human being's desire to belong, conform and do incredibly bad things in the name of not standing alone and facing the truth. It is spoiled a bit by the author's own wilful blind spots, but then... no one's perfect.
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on 8 July 2011
I heard Margaret on the Radio and was enticed to buy the book. I have taken ages to read it as I keep reading a section and then stopping to have a good think. It is so thought provoking, well written and well researched. I have 80 pages to go and am going to see if I can make them last till her next book comes out
Enjoyable, fun interesting and have got at least four friends to get it and read it
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