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Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril Hardcover – March 1, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 70 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A thoughtful and entertaining treatise on the seductiveness—and consequences—of ignoring what's right in front of our eyes, from former CEO and author Heffernan (The Naked Truth). We frequently ignore painful or frightening truths, subconsciously believing that denial can protect us, she argues, but our delusions make us ever more vulnerable, and whatever suffering we choose to ignore continues unabated. The author draws examples from the private—Bernie Madoff's family's blindness to his Ponzi scheme; a woman who married an alcoholic; another unable to see that her husband is sexually abusing her daughter—to the public: Alan Greenspan ignoring the housing bubble, a soldier working for Hitler. She gives us an insightful look into the psychology of denial and makes an ethical and pragmatic argument for engagement rather than deflection. Heffernan's cogent, riveting look at how we behave at our worst encourages us to strive for our best. (Mar.)
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“A call to arms to any whistle-blowers who see what lies ahead and have the courage to speak up.” ―Kirkus

“A thoughtful and entertaining treatise on the seductiveness--and consequences--of ignoring what's right in front of our eyes … Heffernan's cogent, riveting look at how we behave at our worst encourages us to strive for our best.” ―Publishers Weekly

Willful Blindness is an engaging read, packed with cautionary tales ripped from today's headlines as well as a trove of research on why we often stick our head in the sand. With deft prose and page after page of keen insights, Heffernan shows why we close our eyes to facts that threaten our families, our livelihood, and our self-image--and, even better, she points the way out of the darkness.” ―Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind

“An intelligent and eye-opening look at the pervasiveness of willful blindness across society. Margaret Heffernan presents overwhelming evidence of the need for mindfulness as part of the cure.” ―Ellen J. Langer, author of Mindfulness and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

Willful Blindness combines compelling anecdotes, insightful interviews, and convincing scientific evidence to confront the mental distortions that conspire to blind us. Heffernan skillfully shows that by questioning the reasons for our actions and beliefs, we can take positive steps to avoid deluding ourselves.” ―Daniel Simons, coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

“Margaret Heffernan is an unblinking observer of what makes us tick in work and life. This is a book that everyone should read with eyes--and minds--wide open!” ―Alan M. Webber, author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self

“Heffernan speaks with a relentlessly constructive voice, brave curiosity, a passion for truth, and the practical mindset of someone who has built and led successful organizations herself. She motivates us to resist our own tendency to ignore the truths around us, and provides the insights and tools for us to empower others to do the same.” ―Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D., author of Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What's Right


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; 1st edition (March 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802719988
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802719980
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #791,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Niel on May 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I liked the central thesis of this book. Seeing examples of areas where individuals had blatantly disregarded the truth that was right in front of them cause be to become more self-aware, which says a lot to me about the quality of a book.

I am constantly fascinated by psychological experiments which demonstrate just how irrational our behavior can be. The author cites many of these, and it is easy to see myself in several of the situations. I give high marks for the self-analysis this book brought out for me.

My only complaint is her lack of acknowledgement that hindsight really is 20/20. Of course after the fact it's easy to find some facts which pointed to the disaster, but does the author really think that we should or could always see what is going to happen in advance? Yes, occasionally people predict what will happen before it does. The author places these individuals as heroes and claims we should listen to them more carefully. But what about the millions of prognostications which are wrong? Are we supposed to give every individual with a prediction a voice?

That point aside, I do recommend the book. It's though provoking in a way that most current writing is not.
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Format: Hardcover
Margaret Heffernan's background in business is wide as well as deep. In this, her latest book, she rigorously and eloquently examines a common problem: denying truths that are "too painful, too frightening to confront." Many people revert to denial because they are convinced that it is the only way to remain hopeful. "The problem arises when we use the same mechanism to deny uncomfortable truths that cry out for acknowledgement, debate, action, and change." This is among the phenomena that Dante had in mind when reserving the last -- and worst -- ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Many of those whom Heffernan discusses in this book have what she characterizes as "a fierce determination to see." Their courage in daring to do so "reveals a central truth about willful blindness: We may think that being blind makes us safer, when in fact it leaves us crippled, vulnerable, and powerless. But when confront facts and fears, we achieve real power and unleash our capacity for change."

As I worked my way through the narrative, I was reminded of Sophocles' Oedipus who gains understanding (i.e. "sees" what is true and what is not) only after gouging out his eyes with broaches ripped from the gown of his dead wife. Similarly, only after Shakespeare's Lear loses his mind does he begin to "see" what he failed to understand previously. Heffernan asserts, and I wholly agree, that almost anyone can learned 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?"

My own experience suggests that people tend to see what they expect to see and fail to see what they do not expect to see.
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Format: Kindle Edition
The premise that we all have intentional (and unintentional) `willful blindness' to things we do not want to hear or see is well presented. Blindness is all around us from

1) Social Proofs - (reference to Serpico or the Genovese murder)
2) Authority Misinfluence - (think of `well the boss said do it')
3) Stress Influence - (reduced mental capacity due to sleep deprivation and due dates)
4) Contrast Misreaction - (cognition is mislead from tiny changes)

In some business cultures you also get the adage of `don't bring me problems, bring a solution' is another intentional/unintentional blindness by the manager or boss that many have surely run across. In all, a good effort and book with a positive recommendation while overlooking the political comments by the author.

Nevertheless, I had to rate this book at only 3 stars. The use of the same quotes and examples several times in the book lacks a needed depth. In addition, this somewhat lower grade is also due to the author's own possible blindness. The author delves into political rhetoric in the second half of the book (somewhat annoying) but seems blind to the fact that whenever one enters into a political discussion the one entering has a chance of being wrong. For the author to point to the `correct' answer in a few of these discussions is possibly showing a `blindness' of her own. Oh well, we all have our own blind spots and to help with our own blindness a few other recommendations are below:

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Format: Audible Audio Edition
I purchased the audio version of the book and enjoyed listening to Margaret Heffernan read her book. Although the book's purpose is to heighten our awareness of our own shortcomings, her tone is neither preachy nor shill. She makes her points powerfully, with calm authority. I enjoyed her British accent, and it was easy to imagine her sitting across a table from me, discussing the issues in the book.

Prior to listening to "Willful Blindness," I'd read about a dozen books about failed decision making, such as "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). The constant theme among them all is that we make ourselves powerless by pretending we don't know. Whether we are blind to our own shortcomings or blind to others' deceptions, we suffer in the end from this lack of knowing. Because the theme has been explored by so many others, I wondered if Heffernan would have anything original to say.

I found the book to be filled with tremendous insight into the paradox of the human condition. For example, Heffernan tells a story about her own life and her decision to marry a man with a serious heart problem that would, inevitably, lead to his death before the age of 40. Why would she blind herself to the fact of his medical condition and marry him, even after his other girlfriends had left him for healthier mates? It was love, she says. Our love for each other and our blindness to the faults of each other is part of the human condition. It is part of who we are. We are, in general, overly optimistic, wear rose colored glasses, trust others more often than we should, and typically fail to put all the facts together into a whole until confronted with a terrible, irreparable truth.

When does this blindness become dangerous, she asks?
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