The legal concept of willful blindness: You are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see. there is an opportunity for knowledge, and a responsibility to be informed, but it is shirked. The law doesn’t care why you remain ignorant, only that you do. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.
That willful blindness is so pervasive does not mean that it is inevitable. We may think being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when we confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change. Embedded within our self-definition, we build relationships, institutions, cities, systems, and cultures that, in reaffirming our values, blind us to alternatives. This is where our willful blindness originates: in the innate human desire for familiarity, for likeness, that is fundamental to the ways our minds work.
We may think that opposites attract, but they don’t get married. “positive assortative mating”—which really just means that we marry people like ourselves. Familiarity, it turns out, does not breed contempt. It breeds comfort. The familiar makes us feel secure and comfortable. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
This is natural but it isn’t neutral. In what he calls the “group polarization effect,” legal scholar Cass Sunstein found that when groups of like-minded people get together, they make each other’s views more extreme. Our intellectual homes are just as self-selected and exclusive as our physical homes. In theory, the Internet was going to change all of this. Living, working, and making decisions with people like ourselves brings us comfort and efficiencies, but it also makes us far narrower in how we think and what we see. The more tightly we focus, the more we leave out. conscious, deliberate choices to be blind, but in a skein of decisions that slowly but surely restrict our view. We don’t sense our perspective closing in and most would prefer that it stay broad and rich.
But our blindness grows out of the small, daily decisions that we make, which embed us more snugly inside our affirming thoughts and values. And what’s most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfort and greater certainty. We think we see more—even as the landscape shrinks. that is why physicians aren’t supposed to treat family members—because love blinds them to the realities of the case. This doesn’t, unfortunately, stop family members from asking for advice and even, on occasion, free care. And it has proved impossible for professional organizations to prevent doctors treating their own families.
The dangers are twofold: a tendency either to underplay the problem (I love you and can’t bear for you to be ill) or to overplay the problem (I couldn’t bear to lose you so will treat the tiniest symptom). This is the true cost of blindness: as long as it feels safer to do and say nothing, as long as keeping the peace feels more benign, abuse can continue. Our desire to protect our self-worth results in others paying a very high price. Nations, institutions, individuals can all be blinded by love, by the need to believe themselves good and worthy and valued. We simply could not function if we believed ourselves to be otherwise. But when we are blind to the flaws and failings of what we love, we aren’t effective either. As Colm O’Gorman said, we make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. That’s the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.
IT’S AS EASY to fall in love with an idea as with a person. Big ideas are especially alluring. They bring order to the world, give meaning to it. Our brains treat differently any information that might challenge our closely held beliefs. The brain doesn’t like conflict and works hard to resolve it. Which means that when we work hard to defend our core beliefs, we risk becoming blind to the evidence that could tell us we’re wrong. Dissonance is eliminated when we blind ourselves to contradictory propositions. And we are prepared to pay a very high price to preserve our most cherished ideas. we can stay awake for long periods of time with little sleep—but what we lose, progressively, is the ability to think. we see what we expect to see and are blind to the unexpected.
“For the human brain,” says Simons, “attention is a zero-sum game: If we pay more attention to one place, object, or event, we necessarily pay less attention to others.” “Resource depletion specifically disables cognitive elaboration,” Because it takes less brain power to believe than to doubt, we are, when tired or distracted, gullible.25 Because we are all biased, and biases are quick and effortless, exhaustion makes us favor the information we know and are comfortable with. We’re too tired to do the heavier lifting of examining new or contradictory information, so we fall back on our biases, the opinions and the people we already trust. When people felt overloaded, he said, they restricted their social and moral involvement. If it is hard to doubt when you’re tired, it may be even harder to care. Propagandists and brainwashers know what managers and corporate leaders choose to forget: the human mind, overloaded and starved of sleep, becomes morally blind. If you don’t eat, you starve and everyone can see there’s a problem. But when we don’t sleep, or when we work too hard, often even we can’t see there’s a problem. Sure, we don’t feel great; but what we can’t see is what we are losing: the capacity to reason, to judge, to make good and humane decisions, to see consequences and complexity.
When they apply the legal concept of willful blindness in court cases, they are said to be issuing “the ostrich instruction.” Whether the metaphor is scientifically accurate or not, we all recognize the human desire at times to prefer ignorance to knowledge, and to deal with conflict and change by imagining it out of existence. Nobody likes change because the status quo feels safer, it’s familiar, we’re used to it. Change feels like redirecting the riverbed: effortful and risky. It’s so much easier to imagine that what we don’t know won’t hurt us.
You cannot fix a problem that you refuse to acknowledge. We know—intellectually—that confronting an issue is the only way to resolve it. But any resolution will disrupt the status quo. Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive. Unconditional obedience is, in brief, the only principle on which those in service must act.” Hierarchies, and the system of behaviors that they require, proliferate in nature and in man-made organizations. Obedience is even strong enough to blind us to our own self-interest. as an admirable goal should give any executive pause. Some of the gravest mistakes in both the business and the political world have been caused by eager executives, keen to please, hungry for reward, and convinced that blind obedience was their path to success.
Military law would blame the boss. Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups. —Nietzsche Under social pressure, most of us would simply rather be wrong than alone. There is a physical reality to the pain that we feel when we are excluded. In other words, our desire to seek social connections with others comes from chemical rewards as well as social ones. Conformity is compelling because much of our sense of life’s meaning depends on other people.
Ostracism makes individuals feel they lack purpose, have less control over their lives, are less good moral beings, and lack self-worth. Those high school cliques aren’t uniquely adolescent experiences: Human beings hate being left out. We conform because to do so seems to give our life meaning. Because in choosing to stick with the crowd, we steadily blind ourselves—to alternatives, to bad news, to doubt, to the individual values that we think are steady but turn out to also be susceptible—until we find ourselves dazed and confused in the dark.
The bystander effect demonstrates the tremendous tension between our social selves and our individual selves. Left on our own, we mostly do the right thing. But in a group, our moral selves and our social selves come into conflict, which is painful. We are more likely to intervene when we are the sole witness; once there are other witnesses, we become anxious about doing the right thing (whatever that is), about being seen and being judged by the group. Bystanders do play a major part in bullying. Some student bystanders act as “reinforcers,” providing an encouraging audience, while others merely protect the bully by failing to act. This is, of course, why some leaders prefer distance; they feel that they could not do their jobs if they were immersed in the messy, human detail of the mission.
The argument for distance is that eliminating proximity clarifies the mind and facilitates more objective decision making. But it can also blind one to the details that one would prefer not to see. Structural blindness was built into the way BP did business, not because its leaders wanted to be blind but because, to be competitive, The distance imposed by geography and implicit in power is reinforced by the structures within which work gets done.
It’s challenging to recognize that outsourcing has become so embedded in Western economies, that there are no areas in which it is not considered. Why do we build institutions and corporations so large and so complex that we can’t see how they work? In part, it’s because we can. We are so delighted with our own ingenuity and intelligence and it gives us a sense of mastery and power. And we are blind to the blindness these complex structures necessarily confer. Money blinds us to our social relationships, creating a sense of self-sufficiency that discourages cooperation and mutual support. Money and willful blindness make us act in ways incompatible with what we believe our ethics to be, and often even with our own self-interest. All the other organizational forces of willful blindness—obedience, conformity, bystander effects, distance, and division of labor—combine to obscure the moral, human face of work.
Cassandra must have known she was doomed to die then, too, because that was her unique gift: to see what others did not. The savage irony of Cassandra is that, as we read her prophecies, we know that they are true, but no one else does. The world contains millions of Cassandras, in all walks of life and all of them different. Being able to draw a cognitive map requires traveling well outside of our immediate knowledge and safety. It means meeting people not like ourselves, in industries and neighborhoods far from our own, and, when we’re there, having the confidence and curiosity to keep asking questions.
Drawing our cognitive map calls on a breadth of experience, either from different disciplines or different life experiences. CASSANDRAS SHOW US that we don’t have to be blind. They are inspiring individuals because they believe in the possibility of change. Unafraid of conflict, they are more interested in exploring ideas than in defending them. Many people, admiring Cassandras from a distance, hesitate to step into their shoes. The role looks too demanding, the costs too high. We can start by recognizing the homogeneity of our lives, our institutions, neighborhoods, and friends, putting more effort into reaching out to those who don’t fit in and seeing positive value in those that prove more demanding.
The sooner we associate long hours and multitasking with incompetence and carelessness, the better. Their own people, living their own lives: That is what we should aspire to in the schools that we build and the teaching that we deliver. Not compliant, obedient conformists but individuals who insist on thinking for themselves. “The goal is to change people’s patterns of understanding, altering their thinking from ‘me’ to ‘we.’ Changing the game can require surprisingly little: A simple question—Do we mean this? Did I understand correctly?—can turn the tide. If one of the symptoms of blindness is comfort, so one of the indicators of critical thinking may be discomfort. The sheer complexity of many decisions makes blindness all the more tempting. I’ve begun to wonder whether we now have organizations that are simply too complex to manage. If they are too complex to grasp, either we need to change, or they do. we do know is that hierarchies exacerbate blindness and obedience.
“We have monuments for people who have displayed physical courage in war,” Lieutenant Colonel Krawchuk mused. “But where are the monuments to people who said no, we won’t do this because it’s a bad or wrong or unethical decision?” When we are willfully blind, it is in the presence of information that we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know. We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it.
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?