The recent tragic story about the Chinese toddler reminded
me of the insights contained in Margaret Heffernan’s book
“Wilful Blindness”. For those of you who missed the story:
It happened outside a hardware market in Foshan, Guangdong Province.
Two-year-old Wang Yue was seen toddling in the middle of a
narrow street and looking around, oblivious to a
fast-approaching white van. The van knocked the girl over.
The driver briefly stopped with the girl underneath the van,
before continuing on, its rear tires slowly rolling over her
small body. The girl was left barely moving in her own blood
as 18 pedestrians and cyclists passed by without coming to
Minutes later, another small truck drove over Wang without slowing down.
More passers-by walked, cycled or drove around her
motionless body without stopping until a woman carrying a
sack appeared 10 minutes after the initial collision.
Dropping her sack, she quickly moved the girl to safety and
went to look for help. The child later died in hospital. The
heroine turned out to be a 58-year-old beggar named Chen
Xianmei. "Blood was coming out her nose and mouth," Chen
told local reporters. "I didn't understand why no one else
had carried her from the street."
Wilful blindness has been defined as “wilfully shutting your
eyes to the fact”, deliberate or wilful ignorance, conscious
avoidance and deliberate indifference. But why do people
choose to keep themselves in the dark?
People build relationships, institutions, systems and
cultures that re-affirm their values and blind them to
alternatives. This is where wilful blindness originates – in
the innate human desire for familiarity, for likeness, that
which is fundamental to the ways our minds work. Despite
decades of diversity campaigns and millions of Rands
invested in recruitment programmes to make them less biased,
the homogeneity of companies, institutions etc. is
Take hiring of new players into orchestras. An exercise was
done where the person auditioning played behind a curtain so
that the gender could not be seen. Women’s chances of making
it through to the next round increased by 50% and into the
final round by 300%! Blind auditions have now become
standard in the USA, but not in Europe. The Vienna
Philharmonic only accepted female musicians 12 years ago and
currently, out of 145 players, only three are women.
By following our instincts to cluster together in
like-minded communities, we reduce our exposure to different
people, different values and experience and it gets worse
with age. A lovely
analogy used is comparing our neural network development to
that of a riverbed. Initially it is completely random, but
over time, it gets deeper and deeper with less resistance
because we feel more comfortable with the known and
certainty. However, as it gets deeper and deeper, the sides
of the river get higher and higher. Thus, people become more
and more insular, not being able to now see much from the
river. The more comfortable we become, the smaller and
smaller our landscape becomes!
It was thought that the Internet, with all the additional
information available, would change people. We stick with
familiar sites, blogs etc. It has, though, allowed us to
create many shortcuts to get to needed info far quicker.
Shortcuts, however, can be dangerous. Barry Tannebaum and
Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi schemes are striking in that the
people suckered into them, were very similar in background.
They saw who the other investors were, similar to themselves
and hence felt comfortable, and therefore didn’t research as
much as they should have!
Wilful blindness in professions can also be very dangerous.
In 1942, a physician called Alice Stewart joined the Oxford
Institute of Social Medicine, which was formed to research
the correlation between high rates of illness and low social
status. She started to research leukaemia. She noticed that
it was affecting children aged two to four years. However,
not all of these children were poor and they were also
healthy prior to falling ill. Her study matched 500
leukaemia child deaths, plus 500 child deaths from other
forms of cancer with 1,000 live children of the same age,
gender and region. The alarming conclusion was that mothers
in the survey that had undergone obstetric x-rays during
pregnancy were three times more likely to have lost a child
to cancer i.e. x-raying pregnant mothers dramatically
increased the chances of childhood cancer. She published her
results in 1956
She was up against Richard Doll, an epidemiologist, who was
a dominant figure in the British medical establishment. He
refuted her results which didn’t help her cause. Plus the
“sexiness” of x-rays also didn’t help. There was an aura
about them. Radiologists and obstetricians didn’t like to be
told that they had been doing something wrong all their
lives. Their job was to heal people. Plus at that time there
was a threshold theory that there was always a point at
which radiation would be safe.
So Alice Stewart provoked cognitive dissonance in her
scientific colleagues. It could not be true that radiation
was a new wonder tool, but it killed children. It could not
be true that doctors cured people and made them sick. It was
easier for scientists to stick to their beliefs. Threshold
theory and x-rays both worked, doctors remained smart
authoritative people, hence Alice Stewart and her findings
were sacrificed to preserve the big idea! Millions of
pregnant women were x-rayed before a halt was called to it.
It was only in 1980 that major American medical
organisations finally recommend that the practice be
abandoned. In England, it took even longer.
So what’s with bystanders doing nothing while a toddler lies
dying and who is run over again by another vehicle before
one person does something? A number of psychology studies
have shown that if one person is involved, they will do
something. Where more than one is involved, people generally
don’t react. Collectively, we become blind to events that
alone we see readily. Just knowing that other people were
aware of the problem, even without knowing whether anyone
had actually taken steps to address it, is enough to prevent
any form of intervention. We are more likely to intervene
where we are the sole witness; once there are more
witnesses, we become anxious about being judged by the
group. So the Chinese wanted to save face and walked by,
whereas a beggar was more concerned about the toddler than
author gives many more examples in the workplace, obeying
instructions, cultures, etc. It is a fascinating read,