Book Review: 'Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril' by Margaret Heffernan
Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril Margaret Heffernan Walker Books (2011)
How and why all of us should develop “fierce determination to see” whatever we need to understand
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 (http://www.simonslab.com/videos.html). 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: 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.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.