Found this from 2012 while digging for explanations of why we all have blindspots that are obvious to others but not ourselves.
""Embedded within our self-definition, we build relationships, institutions, cities, systems, and cultures that, in reaffirming our values, blind us to alternatives."
"Willful Blindness"
Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril
Margaret Heffernan
Walker & Company, 2011, 294 pp. ISBN 978-0-8027-1998-0
Heffernan is a former producer for BBC Radio and TV, and has been CEO of several interactive multimedia companies. Using fascinating stories of huge blunders in business and government she explores the mechanisms that allow us to blind ourselves to threatening situations in order to feel safe, avoid conflict, reduce anxiety, and protect prestige.
"How could the Catholic Church not see its abusing priests? How could economists miss the housing bubble? Why do spouses think their adultery won't hurt anyone? How could mortgagees take on so much debt? The biggest threats and dangers we face aren't secret or hidden. They're the ones we choose to overlook." (Flyleaf)
1. Affinity and Beyond
"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." (6) "We go through life looking for people who make us comfortable because they're so much like us." (7) "Familiarity, it turns out, does not breed contempt. It breeds comfort." (9) But the flip side is that we miss a lot. Everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
"Madoff's was an affinity crime, preying on people like him who knew people like themselves, who didn't ask questions because their level of comfort with each other was so high that they felt they could take shortcuts." (19) "The more tightly we focus, the more we leave out." (19) Your brain 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." (20)
2. Love is Blind
"Success confers its own blindness. Successful people believe they can get away with it. I talked once to a group of men who'd all become millionaires before the age of forty and who'd had affairs. They don't even see the danger! It isn't a love of risk. They think, the wives will never know, so where's the harm? Everything else in their lives has worked out, so they think they have some kind of magic, that their success has meant that they can have everything they want and they're invulnerable. And they were completely blind to the harm that they had done. They just couldn't conceive that, as good men, they'd done something bad." (28-29, quoting Emily Brown)
"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. ... That's the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger." (43)
3. Dangerous Convictions
"The brain doesn't like conflict and works hard to resolve it. This may be one reason why, when we gather with like-minded people, we are more likely to seek out common ground than areas of difference: quite literally, it feels better. But it also feels rational, even when it isn't. 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." (45)
"No one likes to be told they've been doing something wrong all their lives!" (50) Cognitive dissonance is "the mental turmoil that is evoked when the mind tries to hold two entirely incompatible views." (51) "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." (51)
"Our most cherished beliefs are a vital and central part of who we are--in our own eyes and the eyes of our friends and colleagues. Anything or anyone that threatens that sense of self produces pain that feels just as dangerous and unpleasant as hunger or thirst. A challenge to our big ideas feels life-threatening. And so we strive mightily to reduce the pain, either by ignoring the evidence that proves we are wrong, or by reinterpreting evidence to support us." (54-5)
Re the 2008 banking collapse: "There was just so much happening in markets that Greenspan didn't understand--because it was inconsistent with his worldview." (58) "'I do have an ideology,' Greenspan told U.S. Congress. 'My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies.'" (59) "But for Greenspan, with his theory, the facts became invisible." (64)
4. The Limits of Your Mind
Fatigue, overwork, and burnout limit what people see. "Once you are doing sixty hours a week or more, you don't just get tired, you make mistakes; the time you spend rectifying errors consumes all the extra hours you worked." (71) A week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of point one percent. (73)
What the mind can see is limited when the mind is very busy. (See "The Monkey Business Illusion" on YouTube.) "We experience far less of our visual world than we think we do. We feel like we are going to take in what's around us. But we don't. We pay attention to what we are told to attend to, or what we're looking for, or what we already know. Top-down factors play a big role. Fashion designers will notice clothes. Engineers will notice mechanics. But what we see is amazingly limited." (75, quoting Daniel Simons) "We see what we expect to see, what we're looking for. And we can't see all that much." "We are blind to the unexpected." (75)
We have limited mental capacity and what we appear to lose first may be what we need most: the ability to discriminate, to make good judgments. "Higher-order thinking is more expensive. So too are doubt, skepticism, and argument." It takes less brain power to believe than to doubt. When we are tired or distracted we are more gullible. We are biased and biases are quick and effortless, so exhaustion makes us favor the information that feels comfortable, that which we already know. So we fall back on our biases and the opinions of people we trust.
When people are overloaded, their social and moral judgment is restricted and sympathy for others is limited. "The human mind, overloaded and starved of sleep, becomes morally blind." (81)
5. The Ostrich Instruction
Dermatologists know that many people are damaged by sun bathing and tanning beds. But "thousands of people don't want to know that tanning is bad for them and that tanning beds can kill them." (83) More than a million people use tanning beds every day. That represents a lot of cognitive dissonance with a lot of social support. "They don't want to change. So they just pretend they don't know." (87)
"All of us want to bury our heads in the sand when taxes are due, when we have bad habits we know we should change, or when the car starts to make that strange sound. Ignore it and it will go away--that's what we think and hope. It's more than just wishful thinking. In burying our heads in the sand, we are trying to pretend the threat doesn't exist and that we don't have to change. We are also trying hard to avoid conflict: If the threat's not there, I don't have to fight it. A preference for the status quo, combined with an aversion to conflict, compels us to turn a blind eye to problems and conflicts we just don't want to deal with." (87)
"In business circles, this is known as the 'status quo trap': the preference for everything to stay the same. The gravitational pull of the status quo is strong--it feels easier and less risky, and it requires less mental and emotional energy, to 'leave well enough alone.' 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. ... Every change carries with it the possibility of conflict, uncertainty, danger. The business environment is dynamic and difficult enough without going to look for trouble." (91) Most stay silent, the language of inertia, unwilling to identify or discuss problems they see around them.
A high proportion of employees feel unable to raise an issue or concern with their boss. They don't believe they can change the status quo, so they surrendered to it. And often the boss can't see what the employees don't reveal to them. Sometimes board members will talk in private but not raise difficult issues in the meetings. Maybe they don't know how to solve it, but not raising it ensures it will not be solved. You can't fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge. And if you don't see it, how can you be responsible for it? (94) "Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive." (96)
6. Just Following Orders
How we act and what we see is profoundly altered when we are obeying orders. The research of Stanly Milgram reveals that man tends to abandon his humanity as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures. (112) A person acting under authority will perform actions that seem to violate his standards of conscience. His moral concern shifts to considering how well his is living up to the expectations of authority. He feels pride or shame depending not on the moral value of his deeds but how well he has performed the assigned mission. That shift is fundamental and it blinds us to our alternatives. "We focus so intently on the order that we are blind to everything else." (113) Authority replaces individual conscience. "It may even be that the more committed we are conscientiously to the moral purpose of an organization, the more obedient we become." (114)
That, of course, is the problem with management by targets. Implicitly they communicate that it doesn't matter how the target is achieved. "Such is the power of obedience that other considerations (ethics, legality, safety) simply become invisible to social beings who want to make a contribution." (119) (Witness Abu Ghraib when inexperienced jailers were told to 'soften up' prisoners.) This not so much a struggle with obedience but with the side effect of blindness. "When all we do is obey, we become blind: We do not see consequences or alternatives or better solutions." However, much we think we would not obey, we do. It is a default behavior. (123)
7. The Cult of Cultures
"Whereas obedience involves complying with the orders of a formal authority, conformity is the action of someone who 'adopts the habits, routines and language of his peers, who have no special right to direct his behavior.'" (126-27) Solomon Asch designed experiments where an isolated student would often give an obviously wrong answer to conform to a group of conspirators. "Under social pressure, most of us would simply rather be wrong than alone. ... We like to fit in." Further we are more likely to conform to those of higher status. (127) Interestingly, "competitive environments seem to exacerbate conformity." (128) "To be excluded is to be both lonely and impotent. But when we gang together in like-minded groups, we become more effective, learn shortcuts, and feel ourselves validated. Conformity is compelling because much of our sense of life's meaning depends on other people." (132) The need to belong blinds us to alternatives and consequences. "Ostracism makes individuals feel they lack purpose, have less control over their lives, are less good moral beings, and lack self-worth. ... Human beings hate being left out. We conform because to do so seems to give our life meaning." (133)
When a person knows what the group thinks, his sense of need to think decreases, so instead of a group benefiting from the collective wisdom of many, we often get less thoughtfulness from each individual! (136) In a group, the pressure to maintain a consensus results in less thinking. We can see this in famous military disasters such as the Bay of Pigs or the escalation of the Vietnam War. "The more amiability and esprit de corps among the members of a policy-making in-group, the greater is the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by group-think...." It is easy to rationalize away warnings. Dissent is rare. (137)
Catherine Clark was hired at Countrywide (a mortgage company) because "they told me they wanted my experience of different corporate cultures in other places I'd worked. But once I got there--they just wanted me to conform. Working at Countrywide, there wasn't a lot of change and no desire for change. There was no real liking for new people. Everyone talked about the 'Countrywide way' and that's what you were supposed to stick to. It meant that newcomers were all frustrated--they wanted to change, and had often been recruited for change--but we were just shut down." (140)
8. Bystanders
The larger the number of people who witness an emergency, the fewer who will intervene. "When we are in groups, we see bad things happening but act as though we are blind to them." (149) "Diffusion of responsibility--the rule of nobody--is a common feature of many large organizations...." In companies this often results in a failure to respond to business threats. The music business did not anticipate the digital world. And whatever they tried to do, it was always too late. People can see the crisis coming, but no one risks intervening.
9. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The BP top dogs in St. James Square in London were a long way removed from the explosion that killed several people in their largest refinery in Texas City, Texas. Studies of the disaster helped to clarify a number of issues. In large organizations, the people at the top can't see very well what's going on at the bottom. "Physical distance isn't easily bridged, no matter how refined the technology." "It's extremely hard to communicate well with people you don't really know, whose concerns you cannot see." "Relationships--real, face-to-face relationships--change our behavior." (167) Distance blinds you to detail. "Power imposes distance between those that have it and those that do not. The cost is isolation and impaired judgment. Those in power are more optimistic, more likely to assume positive outcomes from risky situations. The more cutoff they are, the more confident they are likely to be that they are right.
"Where you put information makes a difference in how visible it is. When...important information resides in an underfunded department that doesn't have much power, the organization becomes structurally blind." (174) "Structural blindness assumes a concrete reality when it takes the form of outsourcing." "In reality, the disaggregation of work has made it harder than ever to connect all of the pieces; in fact, you need huge swaths of management to oversee outsourcing.... But once you outsource or subcontract work, it loses its visibility." (175)
Many global firms (and investment options) are simply too complex to understand. "We don't see things that are too far away, that are too distant from our own experience, too separate from our own concerns, or simply too complicated to assemble. But we also don't see things that are too far away in time, be it the past or future." So we tend to repeat the mistakes of the past and blind ourselves to the threats of the future.
10. Demoralizing Work
For doctors, money often changes the diagnoses. Seeing dollars signs changes how you think. The old game was to diagnose well but the new game is to make money. They don't really see the game change; they're blind to it. Money changes behavior.
"You can see the temptation, especially in Massachusetts where there is only one good payer, workers' comp. It is devilishly good. You can make so much out of one case. So I can make a lot of money--ten times what I can make from Medicare or an HMO. It is so tempting; with just a few workers' comp patients, you've made your year's income in a month. If this is the going rate, why should I be the sucker?" (186, quoting a doctor who is explaining this phenomenon)
In many places pursuit of profit has displaced concern for people. Money becomes the chief motivator. "When we care about people, we care less about money, and when we care about money, we care less about people." (191)
Many in the sub-prime mortgage business could not see that the prospect of a huge number of foreclosures represented thousands of families losing their homes. All they could think of was cashing in on it. (192) "Money and willful blindness make us act in ways incompatible with what we believe our ethics to be...." "The problem is that we live in societies in which mutual support and cooperation are essential, but money erodes the relationships we need to lead productive, fulfilling, and genuinely happy lives. ... Money keeps us very busy, often too busy, to see clearly and work thoughtfully. It keeps us silent, too, fearful lest debate or criticism jeopardize salaries." (194)
"What money allow us to disengage from the moral and social effects of our decisions. As long as we can frame everything as an economic argument, we don't have to confront the social or moral consequences of our decisions." (197)
11. Cassandra (Those who see what others don't but aren't believed)
Many situations contain truths that are visible, even if we can't see them. We need the people who "are willing to ask awkward questions, trace tricky connections, and challenge embedded assumptions." (203) They are often outsiders. The forces of willful blindness can be overcome but it may come with a high cost.
12. See Better
Can we develop new habits that make us more aware? Perhaps we can put more effort into reaching out to those who don't fit and find the positive value in those who prove more demanding. Homogeneity suddenly looks like a weakness and a risk. Diversity is insurance against internally generated blindness. We must acknowledge our biases and adjust for them. We must recognize the incompetence, carelessness, and blindness associated with consistently long hours and multitasking. Be wary of the grand ideas that too nicely answer all the questions and seek disconfirmation. We must welcome debate and conflict, practice and protect it. Reintroduce the jester's role to draw attention to unwelcome truths and stir things up. Create a culture that fosters courage for employees to initiate ideas for how to fix things. Build an institution where provocation is an essential part of everyone's role. Bring in outsiders. Even a little dissent, a few questions, can change the atmosphere.
"There is tremendous power in an organization when you hear the truth said out loud. The cat is out of the bag. We can see the cat. Now, are we going to just look at it or do something about it?" (226)
Leaders must go out and find those who will tell them the unvarnished truth. You need a thinking partner, one who has nothing but your best interest and the organization's best interest at heart. Build a network of people who will bring the truth. Outsiders are essential to help any leader see. But over time an outsider's familiarity with the business creates biases and blind spots.
"Being a critical thinker starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser." (230) "Each of us needs to develop the courage to intervene when we are worried by what we see." "Power is dangerous, a bubble and a barrier, and wise leaders would do well to see it as a handicap, not a reward--even where there is a profound level of discontinuity built into the environment already." (233)
"If one of the symptoms of blindness is comfort, so one of the indicators of critical thinking may be discomfort. That's why unanimous decisions are intrinsically suspicious. ... Unanimous decisions are incomplete decisions, made when there was too much power in the room, too much obedience, and too much conformity. If only one solution is visible, look again." (239)
"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." (247)
Sent in honor of David by his family, from the queue of David Mays book notes.

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Additional Commentary. . .Resources. . . Replies

  • Points to Ponder . . .

    For the last 14 months of its life, the check engine light in my old Subaru Forester (230,000 miles) was constantly on. I would fix one issue that triggered the alarm and then another would flare up. I became so weary of the issue that I didn’t even want to have it checked out. I just ignored the light and would have disconnected it had I known how to. 

    Years ago (before Mary and I vowed to live debt-free) when our credit card bill would get out of hand, I avoided checking the balance because I knew it was high and out of control.

    In both cases, I was exhibiting the ostrich effect (OE).

    According to a persistent myth, ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they’re scared or feel threatened. They think they are safe if they can’t see the danger. (They don’t really do that.) 

    The ostrich effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to avoid information that they perceive as potentially unpleasant. From a psychological standpoint, OE is the result of the conflict between what our rational mind knows to be important and what our emotional mind anticipates will be painful. Instead of helping, it drains us of time, energy, and resources and offers nothing of value in return. 

    Here are some examples of the ostrich effect

      • You may avoid getting a professional medical diagnosis because you’re afraid of hearing bad news (although, ironically, health information is crucial for health maintenance).
      • You regularly check your retirement fund when the market is going up but not when it’s going down (although, to manage your money wisely, you need consistent data).
      • Parents may hesitate to have a child who is having trouble in school tested.
      • A business executive may postpone delving into what may be problems in the organization.

    As is often the case with cognitive biases, the first step towards clarity is self-awareness. We must realize and admit that we’re falling prey to unhealthy thinking. I think the ostrich effect is one of the easiest biases to recognize: Just identify areas in your life in which you’re procrastinating or reluctant to get information because you think it might be bad news. 

    The antidote to the ostrich effect is also simple and straightforward: Immediately pursue areas that you’re avoiding and pursue them aggressively. Put them at the top of your to-do-list; pledge that you’ll not eat again until you address the issues.  

    The ostrich effect offers no value—there’s no upside—but overcoming it is very beneficial. As the Bible says, “The truth will set you free,” even if the truth is unpalatable.

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