We’re all guilty of wilful blindness—delaying having a troubling symptom checked by the doctor or not opening the credit card bill or avoiding obvious problems in a relationship or at work. Why we overlook red flags may seem obvious, Heffernan argues in this riveting, important book: it feels better not to know; we don’t want to rock the boat or have our value system shattered. But the underlying mechanisms fuelling denial are more complex, and far more dangerous in that they put us at even greater risk.
To make her point, Heffernan nimbly analyzes an endless stream of personal, corporate and political malfeasance, including the BP refinery explosion in Texas, Enron, hurricane Katrina, the subprime mortgage meltdown, tanning beds, Bernie Madoff and global warming. The former BBC producer, who now works for multimedia companies, is an engaging writer able to marshal fascinating multi-disciplinary research into a narrative that traverses the quest for conformity, groupthink, how an overloaded mind leads to moral blindness and the crucial role of Cassandras and whistle-blowers. There’s much fodder for outrage, including the tale of Alice Stewart, a British researcher who unearthed a relationship between X-rays and childhood cancer in the 1950s; yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that the medical system acted on it.
As Heffernan presents it, conditions enabling wilful blindness are high right now—rabid conformity, a technology-distracted populace, a disregard for history, which teaches that it’s always been with us. She quotes a letter written to an Austrian concentration camp by a local woman during the Second World War: she asks that “inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where no one has to see them.”
But then, human capacity to ignore what’s in front of us is staggering, revealed in a Harvard study that asked subjects watching a basketball game to count the number of passes. No one noticed a woman in a gorilla suit standing at centre court for nine seconds. The lesson, to paraphrase Paul Simon: a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest. This eye-opening book offers a bracing antidote to that.