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Wilful Blindness

November 2011

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 her aid.

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 overwhelming.

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 herself.

The author gives many more examples in the workplace, obeying instructions, cultures, etc. It is a fascinating read, highly recommended.


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