Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

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9780802777966: Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

Why, after every major accident and blunder, do we look back and say, How could we have been so blind? Why do some people see what others don't? And how can we change? Drawing on studies by psychologists and neuroscientists, and from interviews with business leaders, whistleblowers, and white collar criminals, distinguished businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan examines the phenomenon of willful blindness, exploring the reasons that individuals and groups are blind to impending personal tragedies, corporate collapses, engineering failures-even crimes against humanity.

We turn a blind eye in order to feel safe, to avoid conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to protect prestige. But greater understanding leads to solutions, and Heffernan shows how-by challenging our biases, encouraging debate, discouraging conformity, and not backing away from difficult or complicated problems-we can be more mindful of what's going on around us and be proactive instead of reactive.

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About the Author:

Margaret Heffernan, former CEO of several interactive media companies, blogs for BNET and the Huffington Post. She is the author of The Naked Truth and How She Does It, and lives in New Hampshire and England. Visit her Web site at www.mheffernan.com.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

groups were asked to assess how much they thought they would like the people whose faces they’d seen if they were to meet them in the future. They were also asked how far they believed those people to be similar to themselves.
 
The students who had seen the same face for four weeks believed more strongly that these were people they would like in real life. They also believed (on no evidence except the photograph) that those faces belonged to people who were similar to themselves. In other words, the familiar faces— with no supporting evidence— felt nicer. Women responded to the experiment in exactly the same way as men. A similar experiment, using irregular octagons, generated the same pattern of responses. The familiar makes us feel secure and comfortable.
 
This even pertains when we go looking for emotional experiences, as when we listen to music. It can be hard fully to enjoy a new piece the first time you listen to it; only after repeated hearings does it become a favorite. Part of that may be because if you’re trying out, say, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for the first time, there is a lot to take in: two orchestras, two choirs, and eight soloists over eighty minutes won’t create an instant impression. And listening to music is a hugely complex cognitive exercise. Even the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” can take some getting used to. But once we’ve heard it a few times, we’re used to it and like it. And then we don’t want something different. We want more of the same.
 
“We score hundreds of attributes of every song,” says Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Internet Radio. “And then we find the matches between those songs— and then that’s what we recommend to you. Because we know that if you liked one piece of music, you are very, very likely to like another one that shares the same characteristics.” Westergren’s business does for music what eHarmony does for dating. Each song is scored manually by musicians for some four hundred attributes; there are thirty for the voice alone, capturing everything from timbre to layers of the voice to vibrato. Then that “score” is matched to other songs that have scores that are as closely similar as possible. Pandora software is doing to music what we do when we meet people: looking for matches. And, when it finds them, people feel very happy. “God, I love Pandora!” said Joe Clayton, a music fan in Boston. “I love it. I’m always finding new bands, new stuff that I just couldn’t find otherwise— certainly not in any music store. And it’s kinda creepy— but in a good way— because they almost never give me something I don’t like. Almost never.”
 
More than fifty million people use Pandora, and many are avid evangelists. But what Pandora can’t do is come up with that serendipitous suggestion that introduces you to something completely different from anything you’ve ever heard before. I like Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and the White Stripes— but I also adore Handel. And given my first three preferences, Pandora wouldn’t ever offer me Handel. Westergren acknowledges that limitation. “We’re never going to take you from rock and roll to baroque music. Pandora is about broadening your selection— but narrowing your taste. If you like jazz, you like more jazz. If you like hip- hop, you like more hip- hop. But Pandora is never going to take you from Springsteen to Handel.”
 
All personalization software, whether eHarmony, Pandora, Amazon’s book recommendations, or MyShape .com’s clothing suggestions, does the same thing: makes our lives easier by reducing overwhelming choice. And software is doing it the same way that our brain does, by searching for matches. It’s as though, online and off - line, our life is one gigantic game of Snap! This is immensely efficient: It means that the brain can take shortcuts because it is working with what it already knows, not having to start from scratch. When we find what we like, part of our plea sure is the joy of recognition.
 
But the flip side of that satisfaction is that we are rejecting a lot along the way. As Westergren says, we are narrowing our taste, reducing the music or books or clothes or people that might widen our horizons. Our brains aren’t designed to draw us into experiences that are wild and different; there would be no advantage in doing something so risky. And so, by focusing in one direction and excluding others, we become blind to the experiences that don’t match.
 
This is not to say that strange, serendipitous things never flow into our lives. Of course they do. You meet someone at work who introduces you to Handel and you develop a love of baroque music. Or— more likely— your son introduces you to Rammstein. But these encounters are random and risky. Remember Robert’s problem with Albanian women.
 
There’s a circle here: We like ourselves, not least because we are known and familiar to ourselves. So we like people similar to us— or that we just imagine might have some attributes in common with us. They feel familiar too, and safe. And those feelings of familiarity and security make us like ourselves more because we aren’t anxious. We belong. Our self- esteem rises. We feel happy. Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently. The problem with this is that everything outside that warm, safe circle is our blind spot.
 
Because not only are we rejecting music that doesn’t match; we use these same processes to make important decisions in our everyday lives. When I had my first opportunity, as a producer at the BBC, to choose my own team, I hoped to hire people who would challenge me and each other and who would invest the entire project with intellectual richness and vigor. With all that firmly in mind, I selected liberal arts graduates who were all female, spoke several languages, and had birthdays within the same week in June. In other words, they were all like me.
 
Did I consciously intend to do that? Of course not. Like hiring managers the world over, I intended to hire only the best and the brightest and that’s what I thought I was looking for. But did I also want people I’d feel comfortable working with, enjoy spending late hours with, people who shared the values of the project? Well, yes. I was biased, in favor of those just like me. Everyone is biased. But just as we are affronted when told that we’re likely to marry and associate with those very similar to ourselves, so most people vehemently reject the idea that they are biased: others may be, but not us. “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” is how the Bible puts it. Of course we consider the people who disagree with us to be the most biased of all.
 
It’s recently become easier to identify and mea sure biases with a suite of tests called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short. Designed by three psychologists, the computer- based tests examine thoughts and feelings that exist outside of our conscious awareness or control.9 These may pertain to gender, age, race, or religion. In the test, participants are given two sets of images and two lists of words— one positive, one negative. Images and words appear randomly on the screen and you have to associate them with positives or negatives. You may link “male” with “intelligent” or “old” with “stupid.” When making a link that isn’t comfortable for us, we take longer. And that delay, say the researchers, is telling: it takes more time to overcome bias. The longer we take to accept a match, the greater our bias.
 
Since 1998, more than 4.5 million people have taken these tests and the researchers have found that bias is pervasive among all of us, whether we think we’re biased or not. White physicians are friendlier toward anonymous white patients than toward black ones. Seventy percent of citizens in thirty- four countries associate science more with men than with women. More than 80 percent of us have a bias against the elderly. Ordinary people (including the researchers who direct the project) harbor negative associations in relation to various social groups even though they say they don’t and often wish, quite earnestly, not to. We see this play out in daily life everywhere. Go into any major corporation and look around. Despite de cades of diversity campaigns and millions of dollars invested in programs to make recruitment and retention less biased and more equitable, the homogeneity of most companies is overwhelming. Look at the lists of where the graduates of Harvard Business School or Wharton go and you will see the same phenomenon: armies marching into banks, financial institutions, consulting firms, year after year.
 
This is one reason why, despite a great deal of goodwill and commitment and even, in some countries, equality legislation, it has proved so hard to shift women into top roles, shovel venture capital into ethnic businesses, or train a lot of male midwives. It isn’t the only reason, of course, but the fact that we like people like ourselves, are unconsciously biased in their favor, makes a big impact. Ste reo types are energy-saving devices; they let us make shortcuts that feel just fine. That’s why they’re so persistent.
 
The famous development of blind auditions for new symphony members provided graphic illustration of this point. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin and Prince ton’s Cecilia Rouse found that when musicians were allowed to audition behind screens, where their gender could not influence the evaluation of their music, women’s chances of making it through the first round increased by 50 percent— and in the final rounds by 300 percent. Blind auditions have now become standard in the United States, with the result that the number of female players in major orchestras has increased from 5 percent to 36 percent.
 
In Europe, that practice is not ubiquitous— and many musicians argue that this perpetuates both gender and ethnic discrimination. Some of this bias isn’t even implicit: The Vienna Philharmonic did not accept women until twelve years ago and even now only 2 percent of its 137 musicians are women. Moreover, despite the recent rise to prominence of many brilliant Asian musicians, the Philharmonic has never hired a visible “non- Aryan” because it feels that such individuals would “destroy the ensemble’s image of Austrian authenticity.” Even white male musicians say that white male musicians prefer white male musicians. Music may be a universal language but not, apparently, universally.
 
The many voices arguing in favor of diversity in recent years have not been motivated only, or even primarily, by notions of social justice. The argument for diversity is that if you bring together lots of different kinds of people, with a wide range of education and experience, they can identify more solutions, see more alternatives to problems, than any single person or homogenous group ever could. Groups have the potential, in other words, to be smarter than individuals; that’s the case put forward so compellingly by James Surowiecki in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But the problem is that, as our biases keep informing whom we hire and promote, we weed out that diversity and are left with skyscrapers full of people pretty much the same.
 
Just as we choose to work with people very like ourselves, we choose to live among them also. The psychologist David Myers says that the way we move around and build neighborhoods mirrors the way we choose our spouses.
 
“Mobility enables the sociological equivalent of ‘assortative mating,’ ” he says. Now that we enjoy so much freedom to move around, choosing the jobs that we like, we can also choose the communities that we like. And by and large we choose “those places and people that are comfortably akin to ourselves.”
 
Across the United States, the journalist Bill Bishop studied this pattern and found that over the last thirty years, most Americans had been engaged in moving toward more homogenous ways of living, “clustering in communities of like- mindedness.” He calls this “the big sort” and what strikes him is how well defended these communities can be. When a lone Republican neighbor, living in a staunchly Democratic part of Austin, Texas, dared to articulate his political opinion in a local LISTSERV, the response he got was unambiguous: “I’m really not interested [in] being surprised by right- wing e-mail in my in box, no matter what its guise. It makes me feel bad, and I don’t like it.”15 As we have either more freedom or less security in our work, we move more. In 2008, thirty-four million people— 11.9 percent of the population— moved, and that was the lowest rate of migration since 1959. And when people move, they mostly choose to live among people who like the same coffee shops, bookstores, festivals, and politics. When Bill Bishop went on to map this trend across the United States, his data revealed that the preference people have for living with others like themselves made a clear impact on the political map of the country. Whereas in 1976, only 26 percent of people lived in landslide counties, by 2000 45.3 percent did. That didn’t make for a lot of argument outside the polling stations.
 
 “The neighborhood where we live,” Rebecca says, “is lovely. The neighbors are lovely. The family on the other side of us, Paul and Juliet— they are us! Mid- thirties, two boys. Slightly younger but exactly parallel. Juliet doesn’t work, but I’m only part- time. The street is full of people like us. Each house is a carbon copy of the same kinds of people.”
 
When Rebecca and Robert were house- hunting, she recalls that they were driven by price, proximity to work, and choice of schools. All her neighbors were using the same parameters, so perhaps it isn’t so surprising that they’d all end up together.
 
“I guess you could say that,” Rebecca concedes. “But there were other places that would have fit the bill. But when we came here, it was more than just functionality. We liked it here— we still like it here. It feels right for us.”
 
Bishop argues that we have come to demand living arrangements that won’t challenge us. We seek confirmation and validation from those around us, even if it is just a matter of our pastimes. Wesleyan College in Connecticut caters to this desire, by offering twenty- eight different dorms organized around themes, including one for “eclectic” students. (Apparently even dislike of themes is a theme.) Colgate College in New York has a dorm for the lovers of foreign films. Affinity is a big draw.
 
These dorms are merely mirroring what is happening in the communities from which these students come; real estate developers bank on it. They design neighborhoods such as Covenant Hills in Orange County for Christians so it boasts a Christian school. The more exotically named Terramor, on the other hand, aims to be one of the largest environmentally friendly developments in America, marketed to “cultural creatives” who want to send their children to its Montessori school. As nice as they may be, what the dorms and developments also do is narro...

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