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VINE VOICEon 25 February 2011
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!
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on 28 July 2017
The idea is important and at the heart of many disasters. So the book should have its place. Unfortunately the author repeats over and over again variants of exactly the same theme. What might have saved it for me would have been some really practical steps to tackle this, a structured approach. The best though are anecdotal references to what some have done.

I am afraid I was left very disappointed by this book and do not recommend it. The first and last chapters are more than enough for me and even they are too repetitive. The fact this book came with the mention that it reached a shortlist for business book awards was what attracted me. Perhaps I should have been less willingly blinded by that and checked further before purchasing.
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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!
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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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on 2 January 2016
Great exploration of how, and why, many of our so-called leaders - especially in business - can manage to deliberately ignore uncomfortable facts, take steps to insulate themselves from them ("plausible deniability") or otheriwse dodge their 'duty of care'. After the Global Financial Crisis this ought to be compulsory reading for all public policy makers.

Interestingly in the USA 'wilful blindness' is no legal defence - would that were true in the UK.
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on 29 August 2017
As society becomes more compliant, why do we disparage dissent and overlook abuse of the weak. Analysing the context of financial scandal and safety breaches that led to disasters such as Texas City, this is a passionate call for change and thought.
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on 4 November 2017
Great book, well written. A real eye opener that will make you question your own wilful blindness that that of others around you. Definitely worth a read.
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on 26 November 2015
Fabulous book. It really shines a bright light on society's failings, which is extremely concerning. It should be a must in all schools and businesses. I am such a big fan now of all Margaret Heffernan's books. However I feel some people get confused Wilful Blindness and telling everyone their negative opinions - not the same thing at all.
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on 3 April 2014
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 'blindness' of a sort. Sadly most humans just go with the flow, that becomes an easy pathway and they fear rocking the boat...even when it is essential to do so. There may be some answers as to why that happens herein this book
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on 18 December 2012
Anybody who thinks outside the box and can't understand the sheep mentality that appears to be all around them will fu=ind thia book invaluable. I have identified an intervention that is unneccessary and I believe (and mounting evidence is showing) is causing irreversible harm. The antipathy, disbelief and resistance to change are baffling but so well explained in the covers of this book. It has helped me in that I realise there are many who have walked this path before me and have had very similar treatment and this is documented wirth numerous examples.
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