Wilful Blindness – why we ignore the obvious at our peril – a review

I don’t know how many reviews have been held on things that have gone wrong and how many enormous documents have been written to change practises and to make sure “things don’t ever go wrong again”. Thousands upon thousands I imagine. And things do go wrong again. This book, Wilful Blindness by Margaret Hefferman, looks at why we don’t learn the lessons of the past and why we will not do so in the future either!

Indeed two of the cases that she quotes in her book have again made the headlines this week. Rupert Murdoch and Cardinal Brady in Ireland.

Yet the book isn’t a pessimistic one. It’s not one that I came away with feeling despondent about. I came away from the book with a greater understanding of, and maybe even sympathy for, why we make mistakes.

Wilful Blindness is a legal principle where

…you are responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something which instead you strove not to see.

Classic examples are someone carries a suitcase and chooses not to see what is inside and it turns out to hold money or drugs; that is wilful blindness.

But there are other much more fascinating examples that pepper this book. It is not just the obvious ones where this principle occurs. Hefferman argues that all of us are guilty of Wilful Blindness. In our home lives as well as in our work. In other words we will often not want to know things we ought to know.

A graphic example that is given in the work place is that of the anaesthetist Steve Bolsin who moved to Bristol Royal Infirmary. He started to notice that survival rates of children there were significantly lower than elsewhere. One of the key reasons was the Medical Director

As far as the surgeon, Mr Wiseheart, was concerned, there was a real issue of technical competence

The most frightening part was that everyone knew the problem. A registrar admitted to his wife:

Everyone knows Wiseheart can’t operate but all the trouble is just being stirred up by someone who has it in for him…. you don’t shop your colleagues

Steve Bolsin eventually formally complained. The only doctor at the time that had ever shopped a colleague. As a result he now works in Australia. Bolsin points out that by the end of training studies have shown that 97% of doctors will not rock the boat. But the cost is huge. An investigation into Bristol said that thirty to thirty five children died as a result of turning a blind eye.

What experiments have found is that we prefer to think inside the box rather than outside the box. We prefer to follow well travelled lines rather than thinking things afresh. And we are very influenced by what others think.

A typical experiment that she reports on is where people are shown 3 separate lines and asked as to which two are the same length. All bar one student is told to choose the wrong lengths.

In nearly 40 per cent of the cases, the isolate student chose the obviously wrong answer…. only about a third can be counted on never to conform …. Under social pressure, most of us would simply rather be wrong than alone.

So, what can be done? Well part of it is to train yourself to recognise that we have an inbuilt bias and culture. We need to listen to people that we disagree with and ensure that we are open to different voices. This takes effort.

So, back to Rupert Murdoch and Cardinal Brady. This week Murdoch was accussed by a parliamentary committee:

“If at all relevant times, Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindess to what was going on in his companies and publications.

“This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International.

In other words Murdoch should have known and to claim that he didn’t know could lead to a charge of Wilful Blindness.

In the case of Cardinal Brady he appears to be one of many in the Catholic Church of Ireland to have turned a blind eye to the abuse going on by Catholic priests. A TV programme is now making the allegation that he investigated a case of abuse.

The child’s father was not allowed in the room, and the child was immediately sworn to secrecy.

The priest who was the abuser was eventually shown to be the most prolific abuser out. It is Wilful Blindness to try and protect the institution ahead of people.

Overall a great book and a thought provoking one and definitely worth reading and seeing how you can think better.


4 comments on “Wilful Blindness – why we ignore the obvious at our peril – a review

  1. johnm55
    May 3, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Good review Will, makes me want to read the book.

    • Will Cookson
      May 3, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks John, it is a very good book and well worth reading.

  2. Steve_Bz
    May 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Hi Will, It’s an absorbing and important subject. However the main point for many people in positions of influence is the opposite: how can we get people to do what we ask them to without objecting. And as your review points out, this isn’t just confined to the rich and powerful, but also everyday doctors, priests and people of every other profession and trade you can think of.

  3. Will Cookson
    May 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Steve, sure there can be a problem with getting people to do stuff but in too many companies there can be a blindness to the ethics of things.

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