Friday Thread: The dangers of ‘willful blindness’…

Margaret Heffernan speaking at a TedX in March 2013 put her finger on a fundamental problem which is found all over the world.

Willful blindness is a legal concept which means, if there’s information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage not to know, the law deems that you’re willfully blind. You have chosen not to know. There’s a lot of willful blindness around these days.

You can see willful blindness in banks, when thousands of people sold mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. You could see them in banks when interest rates were manipulated and everyone around knew what was going on, but everyone studiously ignored it. You can see willful blindness in the Catholic Church, where decades of child abuse went ignored.

You could see willful blindness in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Willful blindness exists on epic scales like those, and it also exists on very small scales, in people’s families, in people’s homes and communities, and particularly in organizations and institutions. Companies that have been studied for willful blindness can be asked questions like, “Are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?”

And when academics have done studies like this of corporations in the United States, what they find is 85 percent of people say yes. Eighty-five percent of people know there’s a problem, but they won’t say anything. And when I duplicated the research in Europe, asking all the same questions, I found exactly the same number. Eighty-five percent.

That’s a lot of silence. It’s a lot of blindness.

And what’s really interesting is that when I go to companies in Switzerland, they tell me, “This is a uniquely Swiss problem.” And when I go to Germany, they say, “Oh yes, this is the German disease.”

And when I go to companies in England, they say, “Oh, yeah, the British are really bad at this.” And the truth is, this is a human problem. We’re all, under certain circumstances, willfully blind.

And, no doubt, in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal there were also cases of large scale willful blindnesses for which whole populations are now paying the price. Interestingly Nassim Taleb tweeted this this morning:

Problems arise where the attention isn’t. And often people give themselves plausible reasons for not blowing the gaffe on issues or problems they know to be serious. In the story Heffernan tells here, the denial persists almost until the day it is sorted out, with a smouldering resentment for the whistleblower even as people receive the help her whistleblowing brings.

In fact in her much more wide ranging and recent Analysis programme Heffernan confesses that the highly regulated (not to mention cash rich and highly motivated) airline industry is one of the few examples she’s seen of a ‘just culture’, in which whistleblowers are seen to add such critical value such that they are automatically granted direct access to the executive level decision makers.

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  • D99

    Much of our news these days seems to come via whistleblowers.

    Does that mean that the mainstream media are often ‘willfully blind’ – with regard to all the things mentioned in the article? Or do they just ‘turn a blind eye’ so to speak?

    Is willful blindness like self-deception, i.e., is it intentional? And when politicians do it, are they blinded by the light of their ideology, or seeing very clearly ahead to the upcoming election?

  • chrisjones2

    Could any of us really function in life if we weren’t willfully blind to some things? A partners little ‘faults’ or minor untruths? A work colleagues / bosses mistakes that mean more work for others?

    In relationships at home or work for example? Surely what matters is what we are willfully blind to and the importance of it for the safety of others?

  • chrisjones2

    Look at the media coverage of murders for example

    Brutal knife murder of attractive young woman in London National Coverage

    Brutal knife murder of middle aged woman in Manchester Local Coverage

    Brutal knife murder of young man in Glasgow, Cardiff or Belfast Next to no coverage

    But is that willful blindness or just the news values of media customers?

    And who decides what you should or should not be blind to – who decides whats worth paying attention to?

  • D99

    Yes, but it’s more the news values of the broadcasters and newspaper editors that determine not only what makes the news, but what they investigate and turn into news. I think that was what Peter Oborne was complaining about when the Telegraph decided not to cover the HSBC tax dodging and when local broadcast journalists fail to push our politicians too hard. They are willfully blind because they are afraid of losing advertising or afraid of losing future access.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Good to see a mention of hindsight – that most exasperating of luxuries. In hindsight we were sleep walking into something. In the thick of it we were only following a quiet life strategy.

  • MerryWeather

    You’ve oversimplified the intention of this article. It is titled ” The dangers of willful blindness”. Not every act of looking past something is dangerous. She is informing the audience of the times that not addressing something only makes it worse.

  • mickfealty

    It’s more interesting than that though Ben. She refers to something more akin to Douglas Adams’ ‘Someone else’s problem field”*, or a bad dose of post hoc rationalisation..

    …people still didn’t want to know. They said things like, “Well, if it were really dangerous, someone would have told us.” “If that’s really why everyone was dying, the doctors would have told us.” Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said, “I don’t want to be a victim. I can’t possibly be a victim, and anyway, every industry has its accidents.”

    Turns out the town was suffering a mass case of asbestosis, which gave rise to a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere else in the US. That’s some ‘quiet life’. Yet, as she says above, this collective denial (something almost verging on a collective psychosis) appears to be an integral part of human nature.

    In her “Just Culture” piece for Analysis she talks about this in much more detail. She concludes that often it is instability and economic dependency that drives people to accept what from an outsider’s point of view might otherwise be deemed as unacceptable. Certainly fear is a factor, though the source of that fear will vary dramatically from case to case.

    Feinman’s inquiry into the Challenger disaster showed a certain degree of willful blindness to risk which was possibly triggered by concerns within Nasa about the implications of delays bringing them into the next budget round and facing a hostile Congress. Inability or unwillingness to brook dissent within a rigid hierarchy it turns out can be dangerous.

    The positive case she provides is the now highly regulated air industry where technicians and other employees are actively encouraged to disagree, contend and report to the most senior levels of the company no matter their grade. Whistleblowing is encouraged. It is an exception which proves the more general rule though.

    The six men credited with setting up the Trades Union movement, the so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs, were punished by deportation to Australia. Today we can spend millions ( strangling the careers of those canaries who do dare to sing out the danger in the mineshaft.

    There’s been a lot of talk about ‘freedom of speech’, though most of it, post Charlie Hebdo, has been couched in the language of offence or trivial provocation of minorities rather than in terms of its greatest utility in terms of rights is as the only insurance we have that other more important rights (such as the right to life) are not breached.

    …freedom doesn’t exist if you don’t use it, and what whistleblowers do, and what people like Gayla Benefield do is they use the freedom that they have.

    And what they’re very prepared to do is recognize that yes, this is going to be an argument, and yes I’m going to have a lot of rows with my neighbors and my colleagues and my friends, but I’m going to become very good at this conflict. I’m going to take on the naysayers, because they’ll make my argument better and stronger.

    I can collaborate with my opponents to become better at what I do. These are people of immense persistence, incredible patience, and an absolute determination not to be blind and not to be silent.


  • aor26

    ‘Wilful Blindness’ Sounds like a perfect description for the British State’s attitude to Northern Ireland from c1925-c1968.

  • chrisjones2

    I fully accept that. My point was that some social blindness is a positive social lubricant that allows us to accommodate to where we stand in relation to others – at home, work and elsewhere.

    In politics for example we all know that PIRA didn’t decommission all its guns – some of the Semtex keeps turning up in dissident attacks for example and it would have been utterly stupid for them to have done so anyway. But we all accept the creative fiction as it allowed the peace process to continue.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Excellent post Mick, and excellently researched. It’s fascinating that fear (whether of argument, confrontation, sticking your head above the parapet, standing out, unpopularity, over-reaction) presents an obstacle to seeing danger, threat or just failure.
    Modern society’s structure of interdependence and over- reliance on authority (or just others) make us simultaneously yield decisions to others yet be cynical/doubtful to alerts of catastrophe. That tsunami that’s 10 mins away from being funneled down Belfast Lough may not succeed in a rapid evacuation of Belfast City Centre but when will THEY clean up the mess when it’s over? Our need to feel safe, secure and certain perhaps creates the conditions for danger, insecurity & uncertainty. So is it our needs that make us blind?
    I always enjoy reading about the limitations & fallibility of the species, particularly cautions against hubris. Hindsight has the eerie resonance of Greek drama. Oh, Cassandra, where are you?

  • Croiteir

    Those semtex guns were hard to find

  • mickfealty

    Rotherham is a better case in point. The local authority there was in such deep denial about the initial problem that by some estimates there may be up to 1400 cases.

    Closer to home we could talk about the church’s wilful blindness over sexual abuse.

    I think we can make a contradistinction between this and consciously agreeing to overlook some unsavoury aspects of our past in order to build a stable and peaceful collective future, and being will-fully blind to active unravelling of decency and accountable order.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Rotherham is a better case in point.” In the light of what has been (finally) reported, it is almost unbelievable that people should have known of this and simply assumed it was in some way “normal”. But watching the similar enough things go on in the media in London between the 1970s/90s made me all too sensitive to just how easily people will file away as normal these most unacceptable of things. Saville (along with Cyril Smith and others) was generally known about. Not the broad extent, but enough of the pattern of forced sex, with touching up as a norm to alert people. They even bosted about it! But “That’s just Jim!” turned the whole thing into a big joke. So others began to feel that they, too could do what they liked, and it began to have a general effect on how much verbal (and other) abuse was accepatble from those you might be working under. So yes, an “active unravelling of decency and accountable order.” The abuse does not simply normalise within its own area, it activly influences every aspect of an organisation’s (or a polity’s) tolerance of corruption in any form.

  • mickfealty

    Gove has told LBC in London that he thinks there’s going be more. From what I understand, that could be a lot more.

    But Heffernan’s point is that this is the result of the behaviour of ordinary people, not just elites. The behaviour is often ‘hidden in plain sight’, ala Douglas Adams.

    Only the consequences are genuinely tragic rather than satirical.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Of course I’d taken Heffernan’s point, Mick. But I’d see this public habit of blindsiding things as being given even greater force of blanking by a “monkey see, monkey do” effect gleaned from the culture that everyone consumes produced by a media sunk in denials.

    And I’d feel that the effect of habits of ignoring uncomfortable truths spreads through the very porous boundaries of categorisation into every aspect of most peoples lives. This is the point I’m making (on another thread) in pointing to the corrupting effect on SF of having to act as if GA’s record, from every time he has had to act on issues of sexual abuse, may be ignored as if it were not really there. It must stress their capacity for sincerity on other issues.

    This ability of electorates to keep voting for the same old faces even after they should have had enough proof to convince any reasonable person that they could expect nothing worthwhile from them, the point of the 1911 Emma Goldman quote I’ve posted twice last year, is precisely what makes me dispair of all electoral politics.