Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

A book review and how it applies to us!

(Written originally in 2013)

The biggest threats and dangers we face aren’t secret or hidden. They’re the ones we choose to overlook” 

This book, recommended to us by one Curtis Ogden from Facilitative Leadership Institute, U.S. brings out the dilemmas in modern personal and professional lives. It tells you something that you have always known, precisely. And which you have chosen to ignore. It also does not make you feel bad about it, for it states that we are tuned to behave in that manner. Our brains have learnt to associate with all that is comfortable and convenient, and ignore the rest. Probably it does so, because it brings happiness. Or absence of conflict, at least. But it also highlights the fact that too much of this ignorance can be fatal. Or let’s say, most fatalities have this wilful blindness at its roots. Willful blindness facilitates, subtly, perpetration of crime. And wilfully blind people can be beyond bystanders-parties in crime! The knowledge then, of where to allow dissonance, is paramount.


When working within a hierarchy, authority replaces individual conscience


Certain traits are associated with, or promote this wilful blindness. Obedience is one of them. A trait hailed as virtue since childhood. In bureaucracy, but may be in other organisations as well, a desire to be ‘conflict averse and have a friction free career’ creeps in. Open communicative management style has few takers. Micro managers are good managers. Perhaps that is why, one misses the field when one reaches the secretariat. How do scams such as Satyam happen? Like ostriches, heads are buried deep in sand.


“Madness is the exception in individuals but the rule in groups”- Nietzche


Conformity is stated to be another behavioural factor that facilitates willful blindness. ‘Whereas obedience involves complying with the orders of a formal authority, conformity is action of someone who adopts the habits, routines and language of his peers, who have no special right to direct his behaviour. The distinguishing feature of conformity is that it is implicit and it feels voluntary’ (emphasis added). Competitiveness (between individuals, organisations) increases conformity. Thus if every peer’s child goes to Sanskriti school, I have to put my kids in Sanskriti!



In a group you do not respond’’


The recent gang rape incidents in the country have also thrown up the issue of bystanders. The role of bystanders and its psychological underpinnings are also analysed in the book. We learn to by-stand, perhaps in schools. When a child is bullying, everyone witnesses. In fact, the audience facilitates bullying. A by-stander, seeing everyone else numb, thinks- ‘why me?’ ‘May be I am wrong, not strong enough!’ There are incidents, well heard of, that may nurture this behaviour. The pick-pocketeers, beating up the whistle-blower himself in crowded public buses, if caught, is a case in point. Research has however proven that it does not take much strength to stop any kind of bullying/crime. ‘People just don’t realise the power they have.’ Did no one smell the smoke before Mantralaya was up in flames?


In large organisations such as government, the distancing from people further nurtures blindness. One is physical distancing, which leads to people getting addressed as ‘beneficiaries’/ ‘victims’ etc. Outsourcing of some functions may have led to reduced organisational trust.  Then, a compulsive need to maintain organisational stability does not tolerate any uncomfortable truth- are the labour figures in NREGA fudged in your district? If the subject matter is ‘technical’, it may often be left to ‘experts’- Irrigation. A subject too distant in time- global warming- may also be addressed superficially. The information may also get stationed comfortably in organisations- Directorate of Economics and Statistics- where it can rest peacefully.


Money can make you work harder, but not smarter. It inhibits creativity and problem solving abilities


What makes issues such as tobacco control, gun culture, environment etc. not getting addressed? Why is it not easy to design an appropriate incentive mechanism to increase productivity of employees. Culture and remuneration practices were found out to be the two main causes of banking failure somewhere. The state of medical ethics is a common talk. The civil movement against ‘corruption’ gives an idea of how sick people have got about it. As mind can concentrate on one thing only, concentration on money distances government from people.


Have we ever felt that something should be done, but perhaps it is someone else’s responsibility? Or that we know our subordinate is corrupt, but can’t write ‘doubtful integrity’ in his ACR? Or felt surprised at why it is easier for some corporates to ask for forgiveness rather than ask for permission? Or follow- ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’- with our subordinates, as long as he is meeting the targets? Or talk innovation, avoid risks? Or are happy dealing with growth, fiscal deficits and poverty reduction targets, believing rest will be taken care of? Is there a tension between our individual self and professional self?













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