Willful Blindness | Margaret Heffernan

Summary of: Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
By: Margaret Heffernan


Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril by Margaret Heffernan delves into the psychological factors that compel us to overlook the reality in various aspects of our lives, disregarding potential risks and detrimental consequences. The book demonstrates how the human mind is naturally inclined to avoid conflicts and challenge conventional views, which results in a state of willful blindness. Through examples ranging from love to businesses, we are made aware of the dangerous consequences of willful blindness.

The Danger of Being Blind

The concept of willful blindness in law implies that if an individual could and should have known something was wrong but chose to remain ignorant, they are still responsible for their actions. This principle extends beyond crime and often has disastrous consequences, as seen in the 2007 housing crash. Despite warning signs, many people chose to remain unaware of the dangers due to the unconscious urge to surround themselves with like-minded people and avoid discomfort. As a result, they suffered the consequences of their willful blindness.

Love and Willful Blindness

Love may be a powerful emotion, but it also carries inherent dangers of causing willful blindness. When we love someone, we tend to overlook their flaws and may not notice signs of abuse or problematic behavior until it is too late. This blindness is often fueled by our fears and assumptions about our partners. Our brains also tend to disregard any facts that might disprove our beliefs, leading to willful blindness. This refusal to believe something obvious is driven by the totalitarian ego, which protects our self-image from incompatible or threatening ideas. Alice Stewart’s discovery of the link between x-ray exposure and leukemia in the 1950s is an example of how people dismissed facts because of their assumptions. Love can blind us, and so can ideas, leading us towards willful blindness.

Burying Our Heads

The phenomenon of ostriches burying their heads in the sand is a myth. In contrast, humans often hide from reality when faced with difficult truths. For example, Nazi Germany residents claimed ignorance of concentration camp crimes, and people continue to ignore the dangers of sleep deprivation. Group environments exacerbate this problem. People are less likely to react to stimuli when in a group, to avoid conflict and maintain social cohesion.

The Power of Blind Obedience

The human tendency to obey and conform can sometimes lead to immoral actions and blindness to the truth. During the Iraq war, soldiers were ordered to commit human rights violations, including rape, torture, and murder, because of their obedience to a vague order. Similarly, a 1950s experiment showed that people are willing to conform to a group’s incorrect answer, even if they know the truth. This proclivity for obedience and conformity can prevent individuals from recognizing their moral responsibility and the truth.

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