Monday, May 2, 2011

Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

We tend to watch the TV channel, read the books and newspapers we agree with. It feels comfortable and safe. Neurologically, “...in its endless search for matches, our brain rejects information that might broaden our outlook, widen our gaze, or make us just a little less certain.” (19) We just don't “see” what the brain doesn't like. (20) If we make daily decisions that affirm the brain actions, we take the first steps to willful blindness. Heffernan says, “And what's most frightening about this process is that as we see less and less, we feel more comfortable and greater security.” (21)
Our brain puts us on the path to willful blindness. Neurological studies show, “...when we find the things we agree with...we feel the same kind of euphoria and reassurance that an addict feels when reunited with his drug of choice...” (45) Studies have shown how hard it is for people to disbelieve a long and deeply held belief, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. She uses Greenspan as an example with his deep belief in free market blinding him to regulating derivatives.
Heffernan writes about the effects of lack of sleep, just how much simultaneous information our brains can receive, and ostrich behavior (not seeing because we don't want to see) – out of sight, out of mind.
Her section on structural blindness in government and the corporate world is enlightening. She also speaks to the influence of money on blindness and how hard it is for whistle blowers to change the minds of those in authority.
Heffernan notes that we do not have to be willfully blind. We can see better and she describes programs helping people broaden their view. Even speaking up at a meeting helps others be more objective. Studies have shown, “just knowing there is a dissenting voice is enough to induce different cognitive processes that yield better judgment.” (233)

“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.” (246) Heffernan concludes, “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?” (247)
 
Walker & Company, 247 pages.
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