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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty