Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan (Book Summary)

At an office where things such as a kitchen are shared, it’s pretty easy to say you know how communal areas can get out of order. The smallest things annoy you off easily, such as a sink full of dishes. Or maybe the fridge is too full because there are too many leftovers that have no one attending to. Either way, there’s certainly something that will just grab your attention and tick you off.

Why do you experience such? Simply put, it would be willful blindness taking its course. Willful blindness is better explained as us trying not to notice what is happening in front of us. It is the little things such as walking into an untidy kitchen at work and that could be the cause of a little scraffle, whilst willful blindness, be it on a personal and collective level can turn that into a huge altercation that could have been avoided if dealt with earlier.

How does willful blindness work and how can one overcome it? That will soon be cleared up. 

Buy this book from Amazon

1 – Individuals often disregard upsetting situations and divergent views.

When it comes to handling situations that concern the law, willful blindness is considered to be when a person is responsible for doing something they know is or could have been problematic and choosing to do the opposite and pretending not to see it. 

To explain take a drug trafficker, especially after having been caught with the stash at the airport. Most use the excuse that they had absolutely no idea of what the package contained and they had no plans of breaking the law. Unfortunately, because the law is known to have no favorites and has completely no interest in finding out why you were blind to the reality but, and in this case, why you did not keep a closer eye to your luggage.

Years before the incident happened, housing marketing in the US had an exceptional increase. People with below-average income could now afford lavish houses, with minimum repayments, or no repayments at all. However, with so much hype around it, nobody stopped to wonder if there is anything wrong with what was happening.

Whilst all that was happening, the financial sector was booming, producing financial instruments like credit default swaps and derivatives, which lead to the downfall of the market. Meanwhile, the investment vehicles were sold on the idea of the increasing market. People should have thought this out through. But why did they not?

Therefore, this all comes back down to how a person’s thinking and wanting to do what everybody else is doing. We all know that once our view is challenged we become uncomfortable.

When it came to making awareness of the disadvantages that could have been encountered through the housing increase, many people refused to listen. No one wanted their perspective to be changed at all. No one gave them the chance to even present the disadvantages to the housing crash as most people thought those who found out these disadvantages had just wanted to project their negative thoughts on them. 

2 – As much as we are blinded by love, it is as much as our ideas blind us too. 

When it comes to the emotion of love, this emotion is considered one of the most powerful tools. But one needs to consider that as powerful as this tool is, it is also very dangerous. It encounters dangerous consequences. Such as when you believe that you have met the love of your life. In your eyes, they do nothing wrong. You perceive them through rose-tinted lenses, where all their wrongdoings are hidden. Love can distract you from seeing exactly what is presented in front of you. The true colors are tainted which is very dangerous.

Take a female to explain. Women are easily blinded by love. Noticing the smallest thing in front of them is hard to even see. For instance when the children are being abused by their partners, they hardly ever pick up on the signs. Without concrete proof, even convincing them seems like talking to a brick wall. This case of willful blindness is due to the fact of losing the love of their life or the breadwinner of the family.

Furthermore, women would rather fight to keep the perception they have of their partner then believe another. Our well-being is so dependent on what others think of us that hearing someone give an opinion that paints that in bad lighting, our identity goes down with them.

Mildly put, love truly blinds us, and so do ideas. This is all because our brains dislike confrontations. Leading to disregard anything that does not agree with the assumptions already made.

A good example of all this would be one that Alice Stewart had found, where she discovered that in the 1950s pregnancy x-ray exposure lead to the increased rate of leukemia. But during those times doctors had no idea that a mere x-ray could lead to such illness. And because this was so hard to believe most people had concluded that Stewart’s findings had to be incorrect.

Any and everything was done to disregard those findings. But there was light at the end of the tunnel, as it becomes harder to ignore these facts and nothing else could be done to dispute them.

When people refuse to believe something that we can all see exists, it is what psychologist Anthony Greenwald describes as a totalitarian ego. This ego takes away from anything that seems to destroy it, going to the lengths of even changing one’s past to keep that image. This psychological problem portrays the role of police keeping that takes one in the direction of willful blindness. Love is considered one of the most powerful tools of emotions anyone can experience. However, that same powerful emotion comes with consequences of danger. It is said that when you love someone you perceive them through rose-tinted lenses, where all their flaws are hidden. As understood love can distract one from seeing the true colors of someone which could be considered dangerous.

3 – In group settings, individuals are less likely to attend to dangers immediately. 

Ever seen an ostrich burying their head in the sand, or even a picture of one doing so? This is something that ostriches are known to do to feel safe or even hide, also known as an illusion. The head of an ostrich is small for its body size; it often looks like sometimes they burying their heads although they are just playing around in the sand trying to find food.

And though these big birds aren’t hiding from reality, humans enjoy doing so all the time.

Nazi Germany, for explain, people there lived close to concentration camps, but however act oblivious to the crimes that happened around them. While what was going on was obvious, they chose not to see it. And this could be the incidents were too explicit and they couldn’t handle them.

Or take a simpler example such as how people overwork themselves and getting less sleep. But it has been proven that a night without sleep has equivalent physiological effects that can reach a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent, which could be considered illegal to drive in many places.

Charles Czeisler a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medicine School conducted research that had findings showing that the chances of hospital interns injections themselves with needles or cutting themselves with a scalpel tend to increase by 61 percent after a 24-hour shift. However, most people do not complain. Ignoring the signs of danger, they continue working.

Simply put, it is far better to hide our heads from the reality of life. But this option to blind ourselves gets higher in a group setting. To explain, it’s proven that when a person sees fires whilst alone in a room, the reaction happens within seconds.

But when in a group setting, a reaction can be slower than normal. Such as a person in group surroundings seeing smoke they may ignore since no one else is reacting.


When with others, it is important how others see us. This leads to problems because if no one else is affected and reacting this could cause issues in the group. Resulting in, instead of speaking out, most stand by and wait.

4 – Obedience and conformity encourage one to do what is expected be it dishonest. 

Put yourself in the mind of a soldier, given an order, if done, many people lose their lives. Would you blindly agree? And although your conscious tries to steer you against this, you willingly have to obey, which is what blinds most people to respond.

During the Iraq War, the US shoulders that were in the Iraqi prison referred to as Abu Ghraib was told to appear as softer. This leads to a debacle about abuse and torture, and due to the command, soldiers and the CIA personnel took out many events of horrific human rights violations, including rape, torture admirer. In this case, choosing to obedient to an order lead to willful blindness as the soldiers did not the moral implications of the actions and just followed orders.

Being obedience is considered a major thing, it’s often the human drive for conformity, or the adoption of views, habits, and routines of our peers. in the 1950s psychologist, Solomon Asch experimented with eight college students, containing only one real test subject, two cards.

Card number one showed a vertical line of a certain length, whilst the second one had three vertical lines, one of them is the same length as the first card although one is visibly shorter and the other is visibly longer.

He then asked the subjects which of these lines on the second card matched the first one. and the real subject is always made to answer last, whilst the other seven “actors” are instructed to give the same wrong answer.

When it’s all done, almost 35 percent of the answers given to the real subjects conform to the incorrect answers by the actors. Although the subjects must have known that the answers were incorrect they ability to conform to the group was too strong that they turned a blind eye to what is true.

5 – Willful blindness can be caused by distance and not being hands on deck in the business.

When companies increase from the start-up to huge organizations, the pain they go through, almost as if though they reaching far too high. Furthermore, having more teams and offices across the world, each where one specializes in something different could lead to losing control, which is not good for new businesses.

After all, businesses that are all over the world, t work at maintaining central control can show signs of being blind to dangers in various operations.

Look at the deepwater horizon oil rig which operated in the Gulf of Mexico. Working on this oil rig, many important risks were overlooked, which lead to disastrous consequences. a fire took place which resulted in the rig sinking and the oil spilling over on titanic proportions.

But how was this allowed to happen?

The platform was under the management of an offshore rig operator Transocean, but rented by the oil giant British Petroleum, or P. keeping an eye on the project from London, BP did not know about these problems. There had been signs of gas leaking to the drilling area, fire risk or even inherent dangers posed by lack of adequate fire plans.

Also, siloed businesses can come off as willful blindness. While most companies show off a bird’s eye view in all aspects of the operation, most puzzle pieces ten to be ignored.

For example, SIGG, the aluminum water bottle company. a Swiss firm that promotes the products as free bisphenol A OR BPA, a synthetic, used for plastic products resulting in diabetes or erectile dysfunction.

However, even after the company’s claims, the subcontractor produces the linings for SIGG’s bottles and proved to be intoxicated. They never told SIGG the truth about all this and also the company never bothered to ask, willingly choosing to be consumed by willful blindness.

But all things that happen in the dark comes to light, and it came out that SIG bottles were intoxicated with BPA and the company was tarnished, leaving the CEO without a job.

6 – Willful blindness are obstacles we encounter in our everyday lives

Cassandra’s father was an ancient king, gifted with the art of prophecy.

Unfortunately for Cassandra, many found it hard to believe anything she did or said. However due to this, when she tried warning the Trojans of danger such as the wooden horse, no one took her seriously. This story may seem too old, it has many lessons to be learned from it, importantly whistleblowers.

Brave souls such as whistleblowers fight battles against willful blindness, trying to make others see the truth. For example, Chelsea Manning. She let out a top-secret from the document of the US Army which contained operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to Williams, which lead to the huge scandal of ethical dimensions between the wars.

The most important form of information that she leaked consisted of say video depicting a 2007 US Apache helicopter strike in Baghdad which resulted in the death of several people, including a Reuters journalist. After the video was released, a global discussion was had concerning Eric’s of the strike and war as a whole.

Having the information concerning the conflict accessible to the public, Manning urged people of the willful blindness surrounding the terror of the Iraq War. Although no one is up to the task of being known as a whistleblower, one can challenge their willful blindness in their way. It’s not easy to do, but it just includes overcoming the drive towards homogeneity.

Also, if you ever see yourself always saying yes to almost everything and everyone, it’s time to be more open to new ideas and perspectives. And this can be done by taking a top from India’s biggest employee Ratan Tata.

This is because, in the mornings on the way to work, instead of sitting there and reading a newspaper, he has conversations with the driver.

And through all this, Tata gets to perceive another insight that helps him with his willful blindness. And like him, you too can find ways to challenge yourself in simpler views. Making those small conversations are what help us learn of others that live with us in this world who are not on our level as well. 

Willful Blindness: Choosing To Deliberately Not Notice What Is Happening Right In Front Of Us by Margaret Heffernan Book Review

Willingly tying yourself to reality is not always such a bad idea. It gives off the idea that you as a person are ready to show up and face some of the challenges that life throws at us most times. Hence some of the challenges that we are faced with in this day and age can be resolved much easier than back then. And this is usually done best when people do not run away from the issue but are up and ready to face them. Asking questions may make one see as those they know nothing, but it needs one to look at it from a different perspective. Being more present and asking questions saves a lot of trouble. It shows a willingness to learn and create a better life for yourself and those around you.

Buy this book from Amazon

Download Pdf


Download Epub


Audiobook Sample

Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

Recent Posts