The dangers of ‘towing the party line’

In spite of our protests to the contrary, we, as individuals, prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. We prefer to surround ourselves by people who think like us and share our ideals and values.

We crave conformity over critical thinking and individuality – heck our schools and industries are filled with examples of talented people ‘towing the party line’. This may allow us to construct a world around us that feels cozy and safe but it also blinds us to valuable information and behaviours that should alert or alarm us.

We stay silent when we should speak out or question for fear of being ostracized or ousted from the group. This fear of not belonging primes us into becoming willfully blind.

The term willfully blind is a legal phrase that can be traced to the 19th century. It refers to a situation in which, if an individual could have and should have known something, then the law treats it as if he knew it. The claim of not knowing isn’t a sufficient defense.

Margaret Heffernan notes in Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril that “The law doesn’t care why you remain ignorant, only that you do.”

Examples are everywhere; from ignoring (or failing to read) your financial statements to delaying attending the doctor for a symptom that won’t go away.

While we tell ourselves that ‘ignorance is bliss,’ this level of inattention can ultimately destroy us. After all, just because we don’t look at the statement doesn’t mean we don’t owe the money and won’t still lose the house.

Heffernan’s proposition in Willful Blindness is that when capitalism is part of the equation the tendency to be deliberately blind elevates exponentially.

Corporate executives greedy for compensation, politicians who vote for legislation knowing it will never work and auditors who turn blind eyes to findings because they don’t want to lose their client’s business all make destructive blunders because of willful blindness. The conclusion Heffernan reaches is that fear of change and conflict can blind us to evidence. And so can the power of the almighty dollar.

Chapter by chapter, the author challenges readers to stop turning a blind eye. She points to historical evidence, such as the days of the Hitler regime – when so many people turned away and did not want to see what was happening right under their noses.

Heffernan quotes a letter written to an Austrian concentration camp by a local woman during the Second World War in which the woman requests that “inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where no one has to see them.” The fact that you don’t want to see that which makes you uncomfortable doesn’t change what’s happening or your culpability as a bystander.

Willful Blindness forces readers to explore such indisputable evidence of our tendency to blindness. The author’s research covers personal, corporate and political genres from the BP refinery explosion in Texas and in the Gulf, to Enron, to Hurricane Katrina, and the subprime mortgage meltdown, to tanning beds, Bernie Madoff and global warming – there are too many examples to ignore and yet our ability to do so is staggering.

Heffernan notes that “people are about twice as likely to seek information that supports their own point of view as they are to consider an opposing idea.” They’re particularly “resistant to changing what they know how to do, what they have expertise in and certainly what they have economic investment in.” We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our egos.

A challenge to our big ideas feels life-threatening. And so we strive mightily to reduce the pain, either by ignoring the evidence that proves we are wrong, or by reinterpreting evidence to support us. In today’s fast-paced society, our demand for longer working hours and quest for multi-tasking regiments is only contributing to our vulnerability and putting us at even greater peril.

Heffernan, however, does pose a few antidotes to willful blindness. She warns that if a group is too comfortable (complacent) with one another, it ought to sound alarm bells. It is when we are most uncomfortable, she writes, that we are able to avoid slipping into the mind-trap of ‘Willful Blindness’.

Faith Wood is an internationally-recognized behavioral strategist. Her column is distributed through