Founder at AllTopStartups | Author | Creator of Thinking in Models and Kaizen Habits | Featured at Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc.
Mar 6, 2018 · 5 min read

The Psychology of Willful Ignorance: Margaret Heffernan on Why We Ignore The Obvious

Willful blindness has afflicted mankind for centuries.

We prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We crave conformity!

It’s human nature.

But we cannot fix a problem we refuse to acknowledge.

We often surround ourselves with people who think like us and share our ideals and values.

Over the course of our lives, our accumulation of experiences, relationships, and ideas shape who we become, and values and beliefs we cherish.

This allow us to construct a world around us that feels safe but can also blinds us to valuable information, facts and behaviours that should alert or alarm us.

We stay silent when we should speak out or question for fear of being criticised, and often overlook threats and dangers that should otherwise be obvious.

Our brains are wired not only to willfully blind ourselves to evidences that contradict our beliefs, but to perform cognitive acrobatics to rationalize away the contradictions.

Power, money, identity, need for social acceptance and conformity, and cognitive overload contribute to the blindness.

And we often tend to block out the uncomfortable realities of life to save ourselves the hard evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

By seeking out other perspectives and questioning the world around us, we can avoid falling into complacency and conformity.

Blind to the facts

Contradictory information creates imbalance in the human body. Neuro chemicals are released to help delete or distort the divergent data.

Information that supports our current belief is conversely rewarded via dopamine release.

In her book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan, examines the cognitive mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”

Heffernan argues that the biggest threats and dangers we face are the ones we don’t see — not because they’re secret or invisible, but because we’re willfully blind.

The concept of “willful blindness,” Heffernan explains, comes from the law and originates from legislature passed in the 19th century .

It refers to a situation where — if an individual could have and should have known something, then the law treats it as if he knew it. The claim of not knowing isn’t a sufficient defense. Heffernan notes: “The law doesn’t care why you remain ignorant, only that you do.”

Heffernan notes that “people are about twice as likely to seek information that supports their own point of view as they are to consider an opposing idea.”

They’re particularly “resistant to changing what they know how to do, what they have expertise in and certainly what they have economic investment in.”

Cognitive psychologist, Albert Bandura, argues “People are highly driven to do things that build self-worth; you can’t transgress and think of yourself as bad. So people transform harmful practices into worthy ones, coming up with social justification, distancing themselves with euphemisms and numbers, ignoring the long-term consequences of their actions.”

Cases of willful blindness aren’t about hindsight.

They feature contemporaneous information that was available but ignored.

We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our egos.

A challenge to our big ideas feels life-threatening.

And so we strive to reduce the pain, either by ignoring the evidence that proves we are wrong, or by reinterpreting evidence to support us.

Heffernan explores the “friendly alibis” we manufacture for our own inertia. She writes in the book:

Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. 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. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs.

Everyone is biased in favour of themselves. These blind spots turn out to have a physical foundation in the brain. Heffernan quotes neurologist Robert Burton, who studies the biological basis of bias:

Neural networks don’t give you a direct route from, say, a flash of light straight to your consciousness. There are all kinds of committees that vote along the way, whether that flash of light is going to go straight to your consciousness or not. And if there are enough ‘yes’ votes, then yes you can see it. If there aren’t, you could miss it.

But here’s the thing: What does your brain like? What gets the “yes” vote? It likes the stuff it already recognizes. It likes what is familiar. So you will see the familiar stuff right away. The other stuff may take longer, or it may never impinge on your consciousness. You just won’t see it.

Give yourself permission to change your mind

Willful blindness, Heffernan argues, isn’t a fatal diagnosis of the human condition — it may be our natural, evolutionarily cultivated tendency, but it is within our capability to diffuse it with the right combination of intention and attention. She argues:

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. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. 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?

We need to stay sharp — to constantly challenge — and to not accept the status quo. Stay curious. Maintain an open mind. Seek feedack. It often takes a person who is outside the system to see what others are blind to.

Retain a sense of awareness!

In 1926, investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote a letter to his baby son saying “Keep your baby eyes (which are the eyes of genius) on what we don’t know.” These are wonderful words and this sentiment is at the heart of overcoming wilful blindness.

Dig deeper

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Thomas Oppong
Founder at AllTopStartups | Author | Creator of Thinking in Models and Kaizen Habits | Featured at Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc.
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