Book Review: Wilful Blindness Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan



Wilful BlindnessHeffernan uses models from psychology, history, business and the neurosciences to rigorously evaluate the phenomenon of wilful blindness.

Far from being a ‘nice excuse’ to act in blissful ignorance, she shows that all of us are prone to frequent bouts of wilful blindness which are not easily avoided or overcome.

“Not knowing, that’s fine. Ignorance is easy. Knowing can be hard. But at least it is real, it is the truth. The worst is when you don’t want to know—because then it must be something very bad. Otherwise you wouldn’t have so much difficulty knowing.”

But wilful blindness is not just about avoidance of seeing ‘bad’ news; it can also limit our vision of positive potential.  Businesses are often blind to recognising when their strategies are flawed or failing, their competitors are changing and winning or their staff are underperforming – events which could, if they were ‘seen’, trigger positive and powerful redemptive action.

Causes of wilful blindness

There is extensive and practical discussion on several causes of wilful blindness, a few of which are mentioned below

  • Love is blind. Neuroscience shows that we associate unduly positive thoughts to things we have affection for (people, ideas, activities) and we chemically shut down centres for critical reasoning, criticism or negativity
  • Cognitive dissonance makes it unlikely we will shift a long held conviction/belief.  In fact, challenging people’s convictions/beliefs is likely to make them hold them more strongly than if left unchallenged
  • Humans seek affiliation with causes greater than themselves.  Once involved in an organisational/social system they can be blind to personal responsibility and cost, for example ‘following orders’ to act in ways that they would not, outside of that system

It takes courage and commitment to be honest with ourselves and see the world as it truly is.  As consultants in businesses (internally or externally), we could use our potential to ‘see’ what our clients may be ‘blind’ to for mutual advantage and to improve the businesses we work in.